Seekers Church: A Christian Community
In the Tradition of the Church of the Saviour
Sermon: May 13, 2001
Called to Commitment … Through Community
Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, “Why do you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” Then Peter began to explain is to them, step by step, saying, “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter, kill and eat.’ But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth. But a second time the voice answered from heaven, What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water but you will be baptized by the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life. (Acts 11:1-18)
Commitment is a Dialog of Creativity and Discipline
Yesterday afternoon I was with many of you at Becca Lilly Park to celebrate Elisabeth and Richard’s fifteenth wedding anniversary. It was a lovely ritual of gratitude in a beautiful setting, beside a bubbling stream under tall oaks and tulip poplars, where Long Branch flows into Sligo Creek. Part of the celebration was an opportunity to help clean up the stream. I spent about half an hour by myself, wandering up the stream with a trash bag, removing old plastic bags, aluminum cans and broken glass. As I walked, I was reminded of the dance between the running water of the stream and the rocks that stand in its path.
There were many places where the force of the water was evident: ancient trees with roots exposed; stones rubbed smooth by being tumbled along in the spring flood; channels scoured in the bedrock shale by those tumbling rocks. But there were also signs of the power of the stones: places where the stream changed direction because one large boulder stood in the way; quiet pools where the bedrock had held back the scouring of the channel, and little waves, where a stone stood in the water, throwing some of it back upstream.
It was a dance. The creative energy of the stream confronting the solid stones had carved this rich preserve, hidden within plain sight of the Takoma Park homes that stood just up from either bank. Like any dance, it was a dialog of creativity and discipline. As I walked the stream, watching the water for signs of a trash bag or a beer can, I was reminded of one of my favorite passages from West Running Brook, by Robert Frost. Frost is telling about a conversation between a husband and wife about a stream near his home in Maine.
‘Fred, where is north?’
‘North? North is there, my love.
The brook runs west.’
‘West-running Brook then call it.’
(West-running Brook men call it to this day.)
‘What does it think it’s doing running west
When all the other country brooks flow east
To reach the ocean? It must be the brook
Can trust itself to go by contraries
The way I can with you — and you with me —
Because we’re — we’re — I don’t know what we are.
What are we?’
It takes a lot of confidence to run contrary to the rules. It takes a lot of confidence, and an inner discipline.
Later, Fred is talking about the some of the smaller characteristics of West-running Brook. This is the part I thought of when I was standing up to my knees in the cold water of Sligo Creek.
‘Speaking of contraries, see how the brook
In that white wave runs counter to itself.
It is from that in water we were from
Long, long before we were from any creature.
Not just a swerving, but a throwing back,
As if regret were in it and were sacred.
It has this throwing backward on itself,
So that the fall of most of it is always
Raising a little, sending up a little.
Our life runs down in sending up the clock.
The brook runs down in sending up our life.
The sun runs down in sending up the brook.
And there is something sending up the sun.
It is this backward motion toward the source,
Against the stream, that most we see ourselves in,
The tribute of the current to the source.
It is from this in nature we are from.
It is most us.’
‘It is this backward motion toward the source, against the stream, that most we see ourselves in, the tribute of the current to the source. … It is most us.’ The flowing water and the standing rock is a dance of creativity and discipline.
Commitment to Christ flows in surprising channels. This week’s lesson from Acts tells of the Apostle Peter confronting the “old-line believers” in Jerusalem sounds pretty up-to-date. Those who had kept the faith by the old rules were clearly upset that he was baptizing newcomers who didn’t understand all the rules and traditions that had kept the faith pure and undefiled through millennia past. So he gives them a very detailed explanation about why he chose to welcome the Gentiles in Joppa.
He had a vision while he was in a trance, praying.
The vision gave him a new understanding about his spiritual disciplines, one that challenged his traditional practices.
He stood by his tradition and questioned the wisdom of the vision … three times.
Still praying, he received a new understanding from the Holy Spirit.
Immediately, he had an opportunity to put this new understanding into practice.
As he acted, the Holy Spirit confirmed the rightness of his new understanding.
Peter obeyed this combination of prayer, action and confirmation by the Spirit, and established a radically new discipline for his ministry.
One of the realities we face as an independent little Christian Church is how to keep the faith — how honor the traditions and structures that we have set in place to guide us … and still be open to the Holy Spirit. I think this is at the heart of God’s call on the Church today. It’s another version of the dance between creativity and discipline.
Not too long ago Gordon (Cosby) and Kayla (McClurg) pulled together a wonderful little pamphlet that speaks to this dance between creativity and discipline. It’s called “Radical Newness: The Essence of Being Church.” Copies are available on the piano, and it will be published in the next issue of Faith @ Work magazine. I urge you to take one now as an additional reading for this week. Here are a couple of ideas from the pamphlet to get you started:
“From the beginning of time, God has longed for change. God’s very nature is that which produces newness.”
There’s Peter in Jerusalem, trying to tell the old-line believers that it’s OK to accept into the community those odd Gentiles who have drunk the Holy Spirit from a contrary stream. There’s the brook: “What does it think it is doing, running west?” And here we are, too. This is not your Mother’s traditional congregation.
In the article, Gordon goes on to talk about our role in this newness that God is bringing in to being:
“To do a new thing always means an undoing of the old. The way the world has been is collapsing and, at the same time, being redeemed. The central context and instrument of this change is the Church. Just as God’s central work is to generate newness, our central work is to be the Body of Christ — the salt of he earth. Out of this corporate being flows all of our other work. If we are to be faithful to Christ, we cannot by-pass Church. God has given us a vision of how the world can be. It is not our job to make it happen, but to companion God and willingly carry the piece of the dream God gives us to carry. Our task is to be so deeply and intimately connected with Christ that the world will experience the resurrected Christ — the newness God intends — whenever it touches our corporate life.”
In these reflections, Gordon reminds me of the call of Seekers Church. Our call begins with the statement that we are “a Seekers community that comes together in weekly worship rooted in the Biblical faith, with shared leadership; and disperses with a common commitment to understand and implement Christian servanthood in the structures in which we live our lives.” I often hear Liz Vail talking about the wonder and the challenge of being in a community like this, where we are under the authority of a structure we are creating as we go.
This reminds me of the mystery at the center of what it means to be “church:” If I am called to be part of the Body of Christ, what I do makes all the difference in the world. Yet, the future is God’s to create, and in the end, what I do makes no difference at all. It’s a dance between creativity and discipline.
Both are essential. Love pushes out from within. And community shapes the way it grows in the world. Mothers know this … it is part of what it means to be a nurturing parent.
Discipline within community doesn’t seem to be good news these days. Maybe it’s the word itself, “discipline,” that’s the problem. But the more I thought about it, discipline is everywhere. We’re all aware of the disciplines of training and dieting. Most of us consider those to be something we do by ourselves and don’t talk about. We know that Tiger Woods needs to practice all the time to keep his golf game in shape, but all we hear about is the tournaments and the testimonials, not the hours and hours he must spend on the driving range and the putting green. No, I think the idea of improving your competitive advantage by disciplined training is alive and well.
The members of Jubilate mission group, and all the other musicians here, know how important it is to practice playing your instrument. But we don’t talk about the practice. Personal discipline seems to have joined money and sex in hallowed community of conversational taboos.
I think I heard not long ago that the diet industry was making about $30 Billion per year. A lot of that is for support groups, and trainers, and coaches. And this kind of personal training is growing in other areas as well. But the idea of “disciplines,” or practices to support spiritual growth … and the idea of being accountable to someone else for our hopes and our progress … seems to be a surprise or an offense.
It is as though we think we’ve matured to the point that we don’t need any external structures to help us do what we know needs to be done. And we all know how thin that veneer of “total self-reliance” really is.
Let me offer another way of looking at the “discipline” in this balance between creativity and discipline, in the area of our spiritual journey. As most of you know, I’ve been living with a potter for most of my adult life. And, because we’ve had a pottery studio in the basement for 30 years, I’ve had some opportunities to try my hand at the craft.
How many of you have ever tried to throw a pot on a potter’s wheel? Or watched someone else do that? It seems almost magical when the potter gets her hand inside the centered lump of clay and starts to open up a cylinder. The inner hand puts energy into the clay, and it begins to move outward. But the outer hand is there, determining how far the clay will go and what shape it will take. It’s that same dance of creative energy and discipline — the inner hand moving toward newness, and the outer hand holding the limits. In the hands of a skilled potter, a lump of clay can grow quickly into a vase, or a bowl, or a pitcher. The important thing is to be able to balance the inner creative energy and the outer discipline that is needed to shape the clay into the vision the potter has in mind.
But the skill doesn’t come easily, or instantly. Thirty years ago I was in Japan, recovering from a parasite attack in my eye. I had the opportunity to go to Mashiko, a community known for its potters. In Mashiko I went to the studio of Ichiro Hamada, who was one of the living treasures of Japan. Mr. Hamada was not there, but his son was working in the studio, trimming vases. as I watched, he made a mistake, and without looking, threw the spoiled vase over his shoulder onto a huge pile of crumpled, raw clay. There were thousands of spoiled pots in that pile, a testimony to the skill that is required to be a great potter, and the discipline it takes to build that skill.
The pottery process is easy to see, but how does that apply to us? Let me offer one more piece from Gordon’s pamphlet on “Radical Newness:”
This radical newness will require discipline. Not discipline connected to punishment or shame, but discipline that roots us in Christ, deepening our connection to God and one another. This rootedness will come from having consistent, ordered ways in which we remain open to Grace, and they will be unique for each one of us. Grace constantly seeks entrance into our souls in order to effect change, but Grace will never force her way in. Discipline is the means by which we open ourselves to the sort of radical change that has always been God’s intention for us.
This too is a dance between the creative energy of the Holy Spirit, and the discipline of a spiritual life lived in community.
What does it mean to us to be Church — part of the Body of Christ? It means what we say in our call: being a disciplined community that comes together in weekly worship rooted in the Biblical faith, with shared leadership; and disperses with a common commitment to understand and implement Christian servanthood in the structures in which we live our lives. It means building and maintaining a structure that can contain our joys and our pains and our hopes and our fears. It means nurturing this dance between creativity and discipline. As Robert Frost said, ‘It is this backward motion toward the source, against the stream, that most we see ourselves in, the tribute of the current to the source. … It is most us.’ And when we take the time out of the demands places on us by all those worldly “others” and spend it following our spiritual disciplines, what happens is often as radically new as anything that happened in Joppa while Peter was there.
How do we sustain a life of growing faith? First, the power comes from the Holy Spirit, which will show up on the inside, a force of creativity pushing you into God’s unfolding newness. You can encourage the coming of the Spirit through worship and prayer, through reading and reflection, through classes in the School of Christian Living and conversations with others who are also on this journey. But, as I hope I’ve shown this morning, creativity without discipline is cacophony. For real spiritual growth, you need to adopt a disciplined practice. You need a guidebook, and a training regimen, and a coach if you’re ever going to develop this craft of faith. And having some folks to practice with makes a lot of difference.
I’d like the Team Seekers for the 2001 Washington, D.C. AIDS Ride to stand up. If you have any doubts about the importance of disciplined practice to develop your innate ability, ask one of them about getting ready for the ride next month.
And what is the next step for you in deepening your life of faith? First, I’d ask you to be clear that you really want to deepen your relationship with God. We don’t all feel the Spirit all the time. Look at the old-timers in Jerusalem.
If you do want to find the channel to deeper commitment to Christ, keep praying. Who knows when the Holy Spirit will pick you up and hang you upside down from a tree beside the stream? Expect it, but don’t try to predict when or where. Then, while you’re praying, consider the training regimen you’d follow for any other commitment you’d make:
Read the guidebook, or at lest the weekly lections.
Follow a training plan. In Seekers Church we’ve decided on a daily quiet time for reading, prayer and reflection, regular worship and offerings of thanks to God, and a silent retreat once a year as key elements of our disciplines.
Work out regularly with your team. Take a class in the School of Christian Living or become part of the life of a mission group.
Get a coach. Every mission group has a spiritual director or guide, and we’re working on a better way to offer that kind of relationship to others who have not yet found a home in a mission group. Once you are accountable to a coach, you are free to do your best work.
If you want to know why disciplines are important in Seekers Church, watch a potter at work or read any issue of Fitness magazine. Without that outer discipline to help build up the container of your life, the energy welling up within sprays out all over and lays you low.
And if all this “training” seems like bad news to you, remember this: you are welcome here, no matter what. Here’s what I mean: I know how to ride a bicycle. I am NOT training for the AIDS ride, so I do not have a cycling guidebook, or a regular training routine, or a cycling coach. And, when Marjory and I got out our bikes for the first time in a year and rode to Old Town last week for dinner, it didn’t really count as team practice. But Deborah and Glenn and Mollie and Sherry and Sherri and Trish and Jesse and Kate and Carol still talk to me. (Why, they even listen when I talk about bicycling, and encourage me to ride with them!!)
When the Holy Spirit came to those Gentiles in Joppa, they knew it was time to grow, so they sent for Peter. When the Spirit moves you, you’ll know, too. And I’m confident that when you call out for someone to help you make sense of this radical newness, there will be someone here ready to help you follow your unique channel to a deeper relationship with God. Maybe when we move to Carroll Street we can call the building the Holy Spirit Health Spa. In the meantime, keep praying!! Amen.