7 October 2012
Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
For those of you who are new to Seekers Church, the scriptures you just heard are from the Revised Common Lectionary, which is used by many churches throughout numerous denominations in the U.S. From time to time I think that the compilers of the Revised Common Lectionary have a weird way of looking at faith. Today’s lections pair the beginning of the story of Job’s sufferings with the epistle to the Hebrews, which emphasizes the divine nature of Jesus and his suffering on our behalf. That pairing makes sense. But these are paired with Mark’s account of a question posed to Jesus to test him, namely whether it was lawful for Jews to divorce. Then the lection includes Jesus chiding his disciples for hindering children from coming to him. One could almost think that the compilers are trying to equate marriage and parenthood with suffering. I dare not make eye contact with Sharon, my wife of 41 years and mother of our two daughters, as I say this!
It is not clear why this question about divorce was presented to Jesus as the test question. Perhaps they hoped he would simply say “no” and they could charge him with blasphemy because it was contrary to the law they had received from Moses. This would also have the advantage of being disagreeable to Herod, who had divorced his wife, so that perhaps Herod would arrest and execute Jesus the way he had John the Baptist. Perhaps it was because they knew of the rumors about Jesus’ birth, when his father Joseph had sought to divorce Mary due to her pregnancy before their marriage, and they wanted to embarrass Jesus with his own family history. Regardless, Jesus manages to confound them by reminding them that God’s intent is for marriage as a permanent union and divorce was permitted in recognition of their closed minds. That was a not so subtle dig about their rigidity and perhaps a reminder that the ancient prophets used to say that God would divorce himself from God’s people for their faithlessness and chasing after other gods — their spiritual adultery.
I am at a loss to understand the pairing of these lections and invite you to give me your ideas during the comment period. In contrast to Job and Jesus, who were both sinless as they suffered, those of us who are married and those who have been parents know we have not been sinless! Be that as it may, marriage and parenthood are both about commitment and we are in the season of recommitment, so maybe the scripture is timely.
I still remember the best wedding homily I ever heard. The Episcopal priest had the couple sit down. He turned to the groom and said, “For the last few months you’ve been thinking about this wedding.” The priest then turned to the bride and said, “For the last few years you’ve been thinking about this wedding.” The congregation called out, “Amen.” He looked at both of them and said, “In a few moments each of you is going to repeat your wedding vows after me: ‘I (your name), take you (her/his name), to be my wedded wife/husband to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish from this day forward until death do us part.’ But what you will be thinking is, : ‘I (your name), take you (her/his name), to be my wedded wife/husband to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for richer, in health, to love and to cherish from this day forward until death do us part.’” Again, the congregation called out, “Amen.” Then, looking at the bride he said, “But there will come a time when he has been sick in bed for three days with the flu, unshaven, hair all matted, looking green, barely able to down some chicken soup, and when you come in to check on him he vomits it all over the beautiful bedspread and you.” Looking at the groom he said, “And there will come a time when she is eight months pregnant and it’s one in the morning and she wants you to go out and buy her some rocky road ice cream and dill pickles and then give her a backrub. And each of you will be thinking, ‘I never thought that this would be part of marriage and I don’t want it.’ But today you will be promising that through thick and through thin – and there may be a lot of thin – you will stay married.’” Once more, the congregation called out again, “Amen,” and I wondered how many of us really understood when we said our own wedding vows that marriage can have its down times. (You can call out “Amen” if you want to!)
Commitment is a powerful word. At the root of the word “commitment” is two Latin words: “com” and “mittere”, meaning “to send.” When combined, the word “committere” meant “to send” or “to entrust.” Thus a “commitment” means an act of sending something or someone or an agreement or pledge to do something, an entrustment.
For those of us who were baptized as infants, our parents, godparents and others in the congregation who witnessed our baptism committed us into the Christian life. For those of us who were baptized as adolescents or adults, we pledged ourselves as committed to Christ. When we joined a church we pledged to be faithful members of that local part of the Body of Christ.
From its beginning, the Church of the Saviour decided that it would take such a commitment into the Body of Christ seriously. One did not just join the Church of the Saviour by a transfer of membership from another church. Instead, one took classes in the School of Christian Living, one became an intern member of a mission group and took on the disciplines of that mission group, one found a sponsor, and a period of instruction under the sponsor culminated in the preparation of a spiritual autobiography, which was read aloud in the mission group, revised if necessary, and read aloud to the church council.
The integrity of membership was a key concept and accountability for that commitment was a watchword. One way that members held each other accountable was to review their commitment annually and to seriously, SERIOUSLY, decide whether they would recommit to a life in Christ, to a life in a local expression of Christ’s Body. Members and intern members did this through our daily meditation and journaling, spiritual reports, and a vigil in the chapel. Those who decided that they would renew their commitment joined in a ritual on the third Sunday of October.
Seekers Church inherited this practice of annual recommitment from the Church of the Saviour. Many of us have found that Christians from other churches are intrigued by this practice. Without saying so, they seem to assume that the commitment they made – or that was made for them in infant baptism – needs no re-examination. When asked about it, I always say that it the integrity of membership is important to us in Seekers Church and this is one of our key ways of implementing it. I confess that if the person I am talking to is evangelical I am tempted to say that annual recommitment is our way of identifying who is Christian, instead of testing whether each other’s beliefs comport with particular doctrinal points or profession of the Bible’s inerrancy.
In preparation for recommitment, Peter Bankson invited us to reflect on four questions:
What is God’s emerging call on Seekers Church as one small part of the Body of Christ?
What am I being called to offer to God and God’s creation?
How can being a part of Seekers Church support my response to God’s call in all dimensions of my life?
What do I need from and through this community in order to deepen my commitment to Christ?
It seems to me that the first two of these are about being sent – the community being sent and the individuals in it being sent. The other two of these are about entrustment of ourselves to the community. I want us to reflect a bit more on discerning what we are committing to, because I think we have to be clear about that before we can answer these questions satisfactorily.
First and foremost, we are committing ourselves to God. God is sovereign and we are God’s to do with as God pleases. We are committing ourselves not to try to be God but to be God’s people. Have you noticed how rarely in this community we talk about our individual and collective commitment to God but how frequently we talk a lot about this community and give thanks for it (which is proper)? Have you noticed how frequently we unintentionally we take unholy pride in this community (which is improper)? It is improper because this community that we love so much is made of fallible and sinful people, starting with me but – unfortunately — not ending with me. It is improper because we risk making this community an idol. I suggest that we should put more effort into finding ways to talk more frequently about how we commit ourselves to this community as part of a larger commitment of ourselves to God.
Second, we are committing ourselves to living life as Jesus taught. That is, we are committed to living in a way that helps bring about the community of God into a reality a bit more every day. We are committed to mindfulness, to living in the manner of our commitment statements, to putting truth and righteousness first, to putting others’ needs before our own, to seeking forgiveness and offering forgiveness. “For better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health…” And for most of us, there is room for improvement, there is room for accountability, in living this way.
Third, we are committing ourselves to living life in resurrection power. We proclaim Jesus’ resurrection and we live in the freedom that comes from knowing God’s love will never abandon us, that death has no sting.
If we can’t make these three commitments in the deepest parts of ourselves, then I am not sure Peter’s questions make sense at a deep level. Trying to answer them without such deep commitments will only produce answers that aren’t authentic. Trying to answer them after making these deep commitments will produce a local expression of the Body of Christ that will shine to the world like a beacon.
As you may know, Sharon and I went with some neighbors to the Black Hills of South Dakota, and later I traveled by myself on a loop into North Dakota (my 50th state), eastern Montana, eastern Wyoming, and western Nebraska, and back to South Dakota. I saw places of unbelievable beauty and places of desolation, productive ranches and oil fields and abandoned mines and logging and burned places, places of honorable combat and honorable peacemaking during the Indian wars, and places of shameful dishonor where greed meant more than treaties and where innocents were harmed and killed.
In 1834 two buffalo trappers built Fort Laramie near the confluence of the Laramie and North Platte rivers in the Louisiana Purchase in what became the state of Wyoming. Within two years, missionaries to the Oregon Territory passed by and in another 5 years, 1841 – after two economic depressions and the collapse of the international fur trade – settlers from the east left the Missouri River, followed the North Platte River to Fort Casper – now Casper, Wyoming. Then they followed the Sweetwater River to South Pass, the Continental Divide, and over into the Snake River valley and up to the Columbia River valley. That same year, 1841, the first group of settlers broke off the Oregon Trail in Idaho and went west to California. Within a year promoters began luring people to travel to California and 7 years later gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill. Nearly 400,000 people followed these trails over the next decade or so. The trails west across Nebraska Territory and what is now Wyoming were clogged with those seeking to get rich or at least have a better life than what they’d known.
Going west to Oregon or California took commitment. You needed to take about a ton of food, utensils, stoves, bedding, lanterns, tools, wagon parts, and other supplies in a wagon pulled by oxen. And you needed money because you would need to pay for tolls for fording or bridging many rivers and for repairing your wagon and buying new provisions and supplies at places like Fort Laramie. So you had to sell your home and almost all your possessions. And it was a hard trip. Thousands died from drowning, diseases, especially cholera from bad water and unsanitary conditions, dehydration, accidental shootings, falls, and other mishaps. Some estimated that there were ten graves per mile.
There was another group, too. In September 1845 Christians near Nauvoo, Illinois set more than 200 homes and farms afire to force Latter Day Saints — Mormons — to leave. In February 1846 Brigham Young led the departure for points west. It took 16 weeks – almost three times longer than they planned — to cross the 265 miles of Iowa Territory due to bad weather and mud. They reached the Missouri River near what is now Omaha and spent the winter. The advance trip of 143 men, 2 boys, and 3 women left on April 5, 1847 and after traveling about 1,000 miles made it to the Great Salt Lake Valley on July 24. They planted crops, laid out the streets for the town, built shelters, and got ready for winter. More came that summer and fall so that about 1,650 people wintered in what is now Utah. Nine years later groups of Mormons began using handcarts, about 7 feet long and about 5 wide with wheels 5 feet in diameter that could be pushed or pulled without draft animals. The handcarts generally carried about 250 pounds of provisions and a few possessions. Food was transported in wagons. About 3,000 Mormons came this way. Two companies, primarily of Mormon converts from the British Isles and Scandinavia, left too late in the season and hundreds died from starvation and exposure in blizzards just west of Casper before rescue parties arrived.
Imagine yourself on this trek – whenever possible keeping the North Platte between you and non-Mormons. Whenever you had to ford the river when non-Mormon wagon trains were there you competed for the same water, same grass for livestock, same camping sites, and priority for the ford or bridge. Those Christians were more than happy for an excuse to shoot you. So it was a matter of life or death for Mormons to be faster than the non-Mormon groups. There were lots of hills. Imagine pushing or pulling a 500 pound handcart up a 700 foot slope in a blizzard or easing down a 400 foot slope. One of the women who came on a handcart trek said,
People made fun of us as we walked, pulling our handcarts, but the weather was fine and the roads were excellent and although I was sick and we were very tired at night, still we thought it was a glorious way to go to Zion.1
Francis Webster was a survivor of a handcart company that had many deaths. He said,
Was I sorry that I chose to come by hand cart? No. Neither then nor any minute of my life since. The price we paid to become acquainted with God was a privilege to pay and I am thankful that I was privileged to come in the Martin Hand Cart Company.2
To have people make fun of you because of your faith, to become acquainted with God through unbelievable hardship was a privilege? I wonder how often we look at our marriages, our parenting, as a privilege. As we prepare for recommitment Sunday in two weeks, let us reflect on our commitment to God, to living as Jesus taught, and to living in resurrection power. Let us make our commitment for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, loving and cherishing others, until death takes us. Maybe we can come to see our commitment as a deepening our acquaintance with God, and that is truly a privilege.
You can say, “Amen.”
1 Emigrant Priscilla M. Evans of the third company, as quoted in Hafen, LeRoy R.; Ann W. Hafen (1981) . Handcarts to Zion: the story of a unique western migration, 1856–1860: with contemporary journals, accounts, reports and rosters of members of the ten handcart companies. Arthur H. Clark Company. pp. 82–83.
2 Palmer, William R. “Pioneers of Southern Utah” The Instructor, 79 (May, 1944), 217–218, quoted at “Francis Webster of Cedar City, Utah”. http://www.webster-family.org/histories/franciswebster/franciswebster.html. Retrieved 2006-09-20.