September 11, 2022
Twenty-one years ago today, the terrorist group Al Qaeda attacked the World Trade Center buildings and the Pentagon. That day is in my thoughts a lot whenever I lead a tour group to the Pentagon Memorial. Then I can see in my mind the side of the Pentagon that had a gaping hole six stories high, 40 yards wide, and about 40 yards deep. How many of you have been to the Pentagon Memorial? It’s easily accessible from the Pentagon and Pentagon City Metro stations.
In this week’s lectionary Jeremiah’s prophecy predicted a Babylonian invasion that would overwhelm the kingdom of Judah. It would be God’s justice visited upon the people due to their faithlessness and injustice. Jeremiah’s prophecy depicted a reversal of the creation story in Genesis, an un-creation in which the earth would revert to being a void without form, the heavens going dark without the light of the stars, the mountains shaken, humans gone, birds disappeared, the land desolate. Jeremiah intended his prophecy to create fear in the people of Judah – king, priests, and everyone else — to stir them to repent and renew their covenant with God.
The attacks of September 11, 2001 changed America from a confident nation to a fearful nation. Out of our fear we were stirred to make two national commitments: to protecting America and to combatting terrorism by every means possible. To keep the first commitment, we have changed the way we live, pursuing security. To fly we must go through TSA security lines, taking off shoes and occasionally belts. To enter government buildings protected by architectural barriers we must go through security lines.
But after 21 years we are still fearful and not only of terrorism. Now we are also afraid that our disastrous stewardship of our planet has changed the climate so irreversibly that Jeremiah’s prophecy of uncreation will come true within our lifetime or certainly within the lifetime of our children. We’re fearful of pandemics. We’re fearful of teenagers who have assault rifles.
We’re fearful politically. In the last two years, half of our country has become afraid that our beloved American democratic republic might not survive this fall’s elections. The other half is afraid of recent changes in our society, of immigrant People of Color becoming citizens, of gays and other sexual minorities who are unwilling to remain closeted, and, especially, of those willing to confront our nation’s racism so that we can work to overcome it. We have become a people who live in fear.
This is the first Sunday of recommitment season. If you are a visitor or new to worshipping with us, on the third Sunday in October, everyone who claims membership in Seekers Church will be invited to say the words of the appropriate commitment statement aloud and to have their name recorded in our membership book. That same Sunday all the other congregations that comprise the Church of the Saviour –“CofS” — will similarly invite their members to recommit. This annual tradition dates to 1948, the year after the CofS began with nine members as an ecumenical church.
Although it was ecumenical, the CofS did not accept transfer of membership from another Christian congregation or accept membership by mere profession of faith. If that didn’t make us unique, having an annual period where we reflected on our commitment and decided whether to recommit did. The “integrity of membership” was a key concept for the CofS 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 decide whether they would recommit to a life in Christ and 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.
The CofS commitment statement was daunting and yet incredibly inspiring. I confess that in my heart when I say our Seekers Commitment Statements I am also including some of the key phrases from the CofS commitment statement.
Within a few years after Seekers was formed in 1976 we separated the CofS commitment statement into a member’s commitment and a “core member’s” (now Stewards’) commitment and modifying them so that they bear little resemblance to the CofS commitment statement. Marjory’s book Stalking the Spirit describes the evolution of our commitment statements. We were very different in 1976. Because so many Seekers in those early years were parents, we had a thriving Sunday School that numbered about 30 children. We had a mission group called Journeying with Children and it was expected that all Seekers participate in some way with the religious instruction of our children.
Of course, we’ve changed with the passage of time, with the departures of some members and the arrival of new people in the congregation, and from traumatic events. Some of these changes resulted in expectations of changes in our behavior. They feel something like unstated commitments. I ponder these implicit commitments, feeling myself resist some, and suspecting that my resistance is based on fear that we will be changed beyond recognition. Let me give several examples:
- We are now mostly gray haired, mostly retired or close to it. Some of us look for rides to church or medical appointments regularly because they don’t drive. Others are asking Learners and Teachers to schedule classes in the daytime because they no longer drive at night. Some of us suspect we need more people, younger people, if we are to stay a healthy church. Are we willing to commit to and be accountable for greater efforts at evangelism, especially to people who are younger? Will we be open to changes they may bring?
- The children of our early years have grown up and moved away (except for Erica, who God has returned to us). In the last few years before the pandemic, we’ve had less than 10 children and our children’s team – especially Judy – had struggled to find Seekers willing to teach Sunday School. Are we willing to commit to and be accountable for evangelizing families with children and to help teach them?
- Mission groups have always been our most important structure for accountability, for maintaining “the integrity of membership,” an important part of our tradition as a CofS community. The Servant Leadership Working Group has recommended that we end the requirement that a Steward must be in a mission group. What are we willing to commit to and be accountable for with respect to the concept of “the integrity of membership?”
- Part of our CofS tradition is to be an ecumenical church and to be committed to healing the divisions within Christianity. But in our downstairs front window, we proclaim ourselves to be a “progressive” church rather than an ecumenical one. Are we willing to commit to and be accountable for being an ecumenical church? To seeking common ground with churches that are more conservative than we are?
- In that same window we proclaim ourselves to be welcoming and inclusive. We welcome those in the LGBTQ+ community and we use gender inclusive and non-hierarchical language in our worship and publications. Our newest ministry team is leading us to confront and end our racism and white supremacy that undermine inclusion. But we’re exclusionary when it comes to political views. Are we willing to commit to exploring broader meanings of “welcoming” and “inclusive” that include those with different political views than ours?
The biggest recent change to Seekers was brought about by the covid pandemic and, more positively, by remote meetings technology. At first all of us were afraid to worship or meet in person. We had no vaccine and our health care system seemed about to collapse. Thanks to Zoom® and the tireless efforts of Celebration Circle, we were able to keep worshipping weekly. We were also able to conduct School for Christian Growth classes and have both mission group and Stewards meetings. We have used Zoom so much we interject, “You need to unmute!” in our liturgy as if it was the word “Selah” in Psalms.
But this year vaccinations became available, we continued masking and social distancing, and the health care system developed effective treatments. Some of us accepted a higher level of risk for person to person contact even though we protected our members who are especially vulnerable due to age or suppressed immunity. Some Seekers began worrying that our continued reliance on Zoom was sapping our congregation of spiritual energy and began pressing for a resumption of worship in person.
This spring Celebration Circle and a few other volunteers began conducting hybrid worship that combines those of us here with those of you on Zoom. At first it felt odd – we were a small group of about 15 that couldn’t sit close together! And there was no coffee hour for conversations! Hybrid worship is difficult when you are hosting it here. I struggle to participate in worship because I am so consumed with the technical aspects of keeping the order of worship flowing for everyone.
As our numbers have increased here we have felt the resurgence of congregational spiritual energy and a partial return to normalcy as we speak the responses in the liturgy and sing the hymns. People in masks converse after worship, albeit without coffee. However, some in the congregation will continue to be unable to be here. So, are we committing to worshipping in this hybrid format for another year? If we are able to come here, are we committing to worship here instead of in the comfort of our homes?
Preparing for recommitment is always a challenge. In the words of Elizabeth O’Connor,
And so, in October of each year our members affirm anew that we belong to Christ and to one another. The period before recommitment is a time of re-examination, a time when we decide what our most basic belonging means after another year of pilgrimage. Are our roots deeper in God’s life? Does the common life which we know in Christ mean more to us than a year ago? Are we willing to give ourselves to the fellowship at greater cost?
These days before recommitment Sunday bring into the open many repressed reservations and resistances. It is a time of pain and of healing, a season in which we try with brutal honesty to examine anew our original commitment to Christ.[i]
This year, as I allow myself to reflect on these potential changes that have implicit commitments, the season of recommitment seems especially challenging. It feels as if I’m searching for something and I haven’t found it. I don’t know which, if any, of these implicit commitments I’ll add silently to my recommitment as a Steward. I confess I am afraid about the future and how it will impact this little Body of Christ.
In today’s gospel from Luke, Jesus tells of a shepherd who left the flock of 99 sheep to cope by itself while he searched throughout the wilderness for one lost sheep. He found it and brought all 100 sheep home to the flock’s owner, and then invited his friends and neighbors to share in his rejoicing. Jesus also tells of a woman who lost one of her ten silver coins. After searching for it with a lamp and sweeping the whole house, she found it and then she too invited her friends and neighbors to share her joy. The shepherd and the woman each knew what they were looking for and they were committed to finding it. I wonder, were they ever afraid to think that their searching might be in vain? Jesus doesn’t say.
Today’s passage from the First Letter to Timothy was written when Roman persecutions of Christians were continuing and Jesus hadn’t returned to bring about the new kingdom of God. Some of the congregations were living in fear. They had lost faith, lost hope, and in their fear they had started to backslide into previous pagan practices. Paul used his conversion experience to counteract their fear and loss of confidence. He had not deserved God’s grace and yet he had received it, which proved that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Paul was certain that if only the young struggling congregations could see themselves as the recipients of God’s redeeming love as he saw them, they could live in faith, without fear, and be committed to Christ out of gratitude, not out of fear. Paul reminds us that Christians are people of hope, not fear.
I hope you will use the questions that Celebration Circle emailed as an attachment to the link to the hybrid worship service to help you reflect during recommitment season. I’m taking the liberty to leave you with three more questions to reflect upon during recommitment season:
- What are my fears and what are my hopes for Seekers’ future?
- What am I searching for in this season of recommitment?
- What unstated commitments might I make?
And remember, you are a Seeker; you have the right to continue searching until you find what you’re looking for.
[i] Elizabeth O’Connor, Call to Commitment, pp. 37-38. New York: Harper & Row, 1963.