October 17, 2010
Today is Recommitment Sunday, a day when we take the time to acknowledge our commitment to Christ through this community. After the sharing when we gathered there’s not much more I need to say, but I’m not going to let that stop me.
In our call, we lay claim to a commitment that is echoed in the Hebrew Scripture for this week. In the passage from the book of Jeremiah we read:
…this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the LORD, “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.
I just finished the class on covenant in the School of Christian Living. We looked at half a dozen of the many places where this promise is renewed. It took many different forms, but the details were always rooted in this basic reality: God says “I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”
These covenants are built on mutual commitment, that is, on relationships. It takes commitment to stick with it through thick and thin, through 40 years in the desert, or 70 years in exile … or 50 years of marriage, I might add. And as Scripture makes quite clear, we human beings have a checkered record when it comes to commitment. That’s one reason I treasure this practice of coming back to basics every year as the days grow short and leaves abandon their summer jobs, back to the basics of our commitment to Christ through this little, imperfect community. The welcoming statement on our web site says a lot:
We are a small part of the Body of Christ, called to a life of loving and doing God’s will; ordinary, imperfect people facing the turbulence of these times together.
As I did my homework for the covenant class and, reflected on how faithful people have understood God’s covenant over the millennia, three things about commitment became freshly clear to me:
• Commitment is all about relationships;
• We need to put down some roots in order to grow; and
• Life is a cycle, with beginnings and endings to celebrate all the time.
Commitment is all about relationships.
“I will be your God, and you shall be my people.” Thus says the Creator of the Universe. Over the millennia God has been pretty consistent in calling us to be a people, gathered together as a family of faith, the Body of Christ. Commitment is about relationships.
Belonging isn’t all bread and roses. Facing the choice to make a commitment to others can be terrifying. I still remember vividly that I would not join a fraternity when I was in college, because I was afraid of what I’d be getting myself into. I was a loner and didn’t have the social skills to get along with – or put up with – people I didn’t know. So I hid out in my dorm room and was miserably lonely. Lonely, but safe!
Then, 50 years ago next month, I met Marjory and experienced a miracle. I knew very quickly that my commitment to her and to a relationship we could create was worth the risk. We were engaged to be married within a month of meeting. The blinding insight for me was that this commitment was all about building a relationship, and that even though I couldn’t know in advance what that relationship would grow into, I had a deep assurance that it was worth the effort. It hasn’t been all bread and roses, but since Marjory is off in Seattle leading a women’s retreat about hearing God in a noisy world, I’ll spare you the stories.
If commitment is about relationships, then commitment over time is likely to be about relationships over time. It’s about nurturing the relationship like it’s a separate being. After all, our talk about infant relationships, and mature relationships, acknowledging that in some way relationships grow as the years pass.
My relationship to Seekers Church has certainly grown and changed since I started worshipping here in the fall of 1976, a month after Sonya Dyer and Fred Taylor sounded our call for the first time. Of course, I wasn’t ready to join then. The idea of moving quickly into membership had some scary echoes of my reluctance to join a fraternity 19 years earlier. But I kept coming back, and it worked.
I took classes in the School of Christian Living. Dave Lloyd and Marjory and I had the bright idea of bringing Liturgical Clowning to Seekers and it spread like a virus. (As I look at it now, liturgical clowning might have been the InterPlay of our youth as a family of faith.) Eventually, after four years of classes in the School of Christian Living and entry into the mission group that supported the School, I started into the process of becoming what we now call a Steward. By then I’d come to understand that commitment in this faith community was different from joining a fraternity. There was a larger partner in the covenant here – God! And although I still have times of doubt, I was beginning to know deep down inside that in the covenant we make to God and each other every year God was in charge, not you or me. To turn that bumper sticker platitude on its head, here I discovered that “God is my pilot.” Commitment is all about relationships.
There are lots of places to nurture relationships in this little body that we call Seekers Church: mission groups and ministry teams, cycling teams and singalongs, folk cafes and holidays. It takes relationships to keep all of them growing, working together and building trust along the way. Jesus was a wise leader to send his disciples out two-by-two to spread the good news. That way, when one got frustrated or depressed there was another disciple along, someone who could help them keep the faith, help them both remember why they were there, help them stay the course. We’re no different. We need partners to keep going, and keep growing.
Since we’re a diverse lot, there are always new opportunities for relationship. And since we’ve come to Carroll Street more and more of them are reaching out beyond our “membership,” engaging people whose roots are in other places. The conversation on race and diversity is a growing community that’s building ties in ways that we’d have had a hard time imagining 30 years ago. The film series is a big part, but I was struck a while ago by a comment from Sandra that it felt to her that the real work of the group was the in planning committee. That was a place where relationships could grow deeper, where folks could be on the Way with others who might have seemed a bit different in the beginning.
The healing group is a kind of ministry team where Seekers and others who are called to serve in healing professions can be on the Way together, offering support in these areas where they are serving individuals with deep needs.
Oh, I don’t want to forget one other important example of living out God’s call in the structures where we live out our lives. I’m aware that several of us have intentionally reached out to one or more colleagues at work to develop a kind of prayer partnership that is rooted in the joys and concerns of a particular workplace. They meet to share concerns, support each other and pray together.
These remind me of the days when I was in a fairly intense assignment in the Pentagon, in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Over time I discovered that there were four colleagues who were each wrestling with what it meant for us to be on the Way with Christ in that place where war was a constant concern. Over time we formed the “lunch bunch,” and met weekly in the conference room in my office to share our brown-bag lunches and pray – for each other, for those we served to protect, and for the peace that seemed so elusive. That group disbanded when folks were reassigned, but while it lived it was a lively example of a committed relationship in what some might see as an unexpected place. The prayer partner groups I know about now are helping those in them to walk the walk in similar ways.
But as I think about all these examples of relationships that support the commitment we just renewed, I feel some pressure rising from within. My deep desire to have time alone, time for reflection and creative work cries out – Enough! More than enough!!
One of the challenges of a commitment to God through Seekers Church is to find a balance between your inner life of prayer and reflection and the outer life of relationships that is healthy and life-giving for you. There’s a common description of our life together: “All Seekers, all the time!” Yesterday I had to skip the men’s breakfast at the Tastee Diner in Silver Spring – again – because I was on a mission group retreat. But after the retreat I decided to go to the singalong at Muriel and Ed’s home in Mount Vernon just to hang out with folks I know and trust and care about. I’m glad I went, even if it did cut into the time I might have taken to cut this sermon down to size!
Another challenge for some of us is that sometimes we’re not very good at inviting others in. We’ve been schooled (or hurt) by our experience in other churches where the second think out of the “greeter’s” mouth, after “Good morning,” is something like “We want you to join the Tuesday night Bible study which is focused this month on the Book of Tobit.” That was all I needed back then to walk out the door. So mostly, we try not to be pushy, and that can feel like we’d rather not have you. It’s a particular issue for introverts, on both sides of the conversation.
But the challenge here is this: we need to keep the door open and set an extra place at the table. Commitment is all about relationships. So the question, then, is where are you being led to put down your roots?
We need to put down some roots in order to grow
Lately I’ve been waking up in the middle of the night, aroused by this persistent knocking on my roof. The first time I thought it might be God, but no. it was an immense old mother oak tree in front of the house, sending down the harvest. This year her offspring are bigger and fatter and more numerous than I can remember for a long time.
As I thought about what to share today I knew I had to say something about those acorns. It wasn’t long before I saw that at least one learning about commitment and community for me is carried by the acorns: We must put down roots in order to grow.
Mother oak is working hard on her legacy. The other day I picked up about 50 acorns. They’re on the altar table, fat and full of life. Those acorns are pure potential. And although most of them will feed the squirrels, there will be one or two that fall on fertile ground… and it is those, the ones that put down roots, that carry the future of the oak story. When we’re ready to grow, we really do need to put down some roots.
These acorns are SO ready to sprout. After I picked them up, I put the bag on a table in the house so I’d have them ready to bring this morning. Within two days, many of them had sent out that first exploring root, that bright, clean shoot that knows which way to turn to head for the earth. The acorns are so full of yearning that, given half a chance they’ll spend their very selves in looking for a place to take root, find nourishment, and grow. Would that we could be so bold. And God willing, we can.
Looking around the yard I found more than one young daughter of massive Mother Oak. The one on the altar table has been growing in an overlooked corner beside an azalea bush. Since I don’t need another oak that close to the sidewalk, I dug her up and got a close look at her roots. Even in her infancy, this oak is as deep as she is tall. A nice image of the balance of inner and outer journey. It reminds me of our children here at Seekers, who are deeper that we can sometimes see.
And, you might have noticed as you came forward to light your candle during the recommitment, there’s a convoluted area where the trunk joins the roots. As I thought about that I wondered if, perhaps, this acorn had been planted upside down and had to grow around itself in order to find its place in the world. Nice metaphor. Might be me, having to outgrow my initial orientation in order to grow as I was created to grow.
Mother Oak in my yard may raise more questions than she answers, but I like the image: We need to put down some roots in order to grow. And each of us really needs to keep growing.
Last week I speed-read through Elizabeth O’Connor’s Call to Commitment. It’s a good reminder of what it means to be “in the tradition of Church of the Saviour,” in the tradition but out of the mold. One of the points she makes is that our commitments, in mission groups and elsewhere, need to be “graduated,” challenging, but not impossible.
This year I invite each of us to identify some place where we will ask to be challenged – more quiet time perhaps, or more study. A return to daily journaling, perhaps, or taking a class in the School of Christian Living. Joining a ministry team perhaps, or letting go of an obligation to free up time for relationship. I don’t know what’s right for you. That’s one reason it might seem confusing: there are no hard and fast rules.
Life is a cycle: with beginnings and endings to celebrate all the time.
The platitude says, “Life goes on,” or maybe “Get over it.” But it isn’t that easy. There are a lot of changes going on right now, and most of the time it isn’t easy for me to let go of what has been so I have empty hands ready to receive what is new.
It takes time, and community, and liturgy to help us find the strength to grieve the ending of what has been and to open ourselves to celebrate the emergence of the new. Tomorrow, Kate, as chair of the Ecumenical Council of Church of the Saviour, will be our representative as title to the building at 2025 Massachusetts Avenue, the building that has been the Headquarters of CofS, is transferred to a new owner. Kate, here’s my key to 2025 for you to pass along to the new owners. Thank you for all you are doing to shepherd this transition.
Last week, Muriel and Liz and Emmy Lu were at 2025 for the last worship service. Tomorrow the place will belong to someone else: the place, but not the story. The story belongs to all of us. Times of letting go like this raise up the need for liturgy – the work of the people – to help each other and those around us to release the hold of what has been, step into the flow and get ready for the next amazing thing God has in mind.
One place where we’ll be helping this to happen is a ritual of release we’re working on to help the wider Church of the Saviour community honor the ministry of the Wellspring Mission Group. After years of providing a place that has nurtured the faith journeys of so many, Wellspring Mission Group is setting down their call and entering a time of discernment. After the current schedule of events is complete they will shift from supporting events at the Center to discerning what God is calling them to in the future. There will be a ritual of closure on Sunday, November 21st, a time when all of us can gather as a community to give thanks for the bountiful harvest that Wellspring has provided, and join in prayer for the future of that rich resource.
Another place where the new is emerging is at the Potter’s House. There several Seekers, including Sandra and Emmy Lu and Marjory, are walking with Kayla and the Potter’s House Church and staff as they discern a new way to support that venerable ministry of art and hospitality in the heart of Adams Morgan. One exciting seed of possibility new at the Potter’s House is the emergence of a new Order of Servant Ministers. Sandra has some flyers that describe this new initiative. Here, too, there are opportunities to put down your roots. All are invited.
Today we’ve renewed our commitment to be on the Way with Christ. That shines a fresh light on the path before us. Life is a cycle: there are beginnings and endings to celebrate all the time. And one bit of Good News is that we’re not alone.
Putting down roots here in Seekers Church involves choosing a nurturing place to plant the seed. You might consider exploring with a mission group. For me and many others of us, the mission group is the place of deepest belonging in Seekers. You might offer to preach, or volunteer to help out with the visit of our friends from Bokamoso next January. You might help us sprout another Guatemala pilgrimage, serving as a pilgrim or helping with behind-the-scenes support. Or you might decide to focus more on nurturing some other committed relationship.
This is a time of deep change in the life of the Church of the Saviour. I want to close with a poem that came to me five years ago when I was on silent retreat. It was just after Hurricane Isabel pounced on forest at Dayspring. The poem is about oak trees, but speaks to the life cycle that we are part of as we journey with Christ:
“Torn up by the roots”
takes on a whole new meaning
as I contemplate this oak,
too big to wrap her in a full embrace without a friend,
on the forest floor.
Her sisters stand around in silence,
paying last respects.
Her verdant crown, already withered to a rustling brown,
has pinned a small community of mountain laurel.
They will never be the same.
The forest floor is paved
with fat, ripe acorns,
a legacy no hurricane could touch.
There is a fresh, new tunnel to the sky
and timid bands of light
are cautiously exploring
rich, black earth they have not seen for years.
Beside her muddy feet,
now lifted, lifeless in the air,
her daughter stands.
A coltish teen, too young for acorns yet,
she dances on a breeze I can not feel …
soaking in the unexpected sun.
So, as we recommit ourselves to being on the Way with Christ for this coming year, I hope we can remember:
- We need to put down some roots in order to grow.
- Life is a cycle, with beginnings and endings to celebrate all the time.
- Commitment is all about relationships.
And I pray that each of us can claim some specific challenge, some commitment that will help us put down deeper roots, so that when we hear God whisper in the night “Who will I send,” we can dare to respond “Here am I. Send me.”