October 12, 2020
Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Next Sunday is Recommitment Sunday. I hope you have taken some time in silence to engage with the questions that Celebration Circle has posed, and I hope you have sent an email or text message to Ken Burton letting him know whether you are recommitting as a Steward or member, or if you’re committing for the first time. This year they posed two new questions: “How has the pandemic demanded changes in my personal life this year? How does that affect my faith?”
The pandemic has changed parts of my life a great deal. Usually I spend most of my spring, early summer, and autumn days and evenings guiding busloads of students or senior citizens to the D.C. monuments and memorials. Since January I’ve done exactly two tours and the last one was on March 6. The company I guide for has bookings for next spring, but we’re not optimistic. So, one change is that I’ve been around the house a lot more. Also, instead of taking a two-week trip in mid or late summer with Sharon, this year I’ve made only one daytrip. I long to dine inside a restaurant. I haven’t hugged, shaken hands, or given a high five to anyone outside our family and I’ve reduced contact with our grandchildren. I wear a mask and try to maintain appropriate social distance. Teaching on Zoom has changed the way I prepare for and teach a class in the School for Christian Growth.
How has all this affected my faith? Instead of feeling the peace of God, I’ve become anxious. I was relatively okay as the days were getting longer and warmer, and we could go outside. But now as the days are growing shorter and cooler, and the threat of seasonal flu increases, I worry more. I worry about and pray for those who are vulnerable due to age, pre-existing illness, and low income, and for those who are financially struggling.
And there are other things to be anxious about. We have:
- A world facing potential desolation because of the way our economies have contributed to changing the climate,
- Continued acts of terrorism from militants who seek power under the guise of religion,
- In many countries, growing intolerance of those who “aren’t us;” whose physical appearance or religion or culture is different,
- The threat of and use of force to maintain political stability, ignoring claims for justice and reform from those who are victims of racism, political oppression, and religious intolerance,
- Polarized electorates who listen to such different sources of information that we cannot even agree on basic facts,
- Attempts to suppress voting and to impinge upon its fairness,
- And in less than a month, election day, with frequent reminders that this is the most important election of our lifetime!
That’s a lot to deal with even if we weren’t in a pandemic. So yes, I’m anxious. There has been such a lot of bad news, especially political news. It’s exhausting. It’s left me worried, very worried, about the future.
In 2016 we were on a high. We’d elected a Black man as President twice, the economy had been getting better, and finally we were about to elect a woman as President! And then we woke up the morning after the election to find that our country had elected as President yet another white man, this time a bully whose worldview is a mirror. Now there have been some good things in the last four years: an economy that continued expanding and producing low unemployment until the pandemic came, a growing consensus that memorials to slavery and racial oppression should be removed, and three professional sports championships here in Washington. Meredith remarried and we gained a wonderful son-in-law and grandson and now have two lovely granddaughters. Erica moved back from Haiti and is now an important part of Seekers. In many ways I have been very blessed. New people have come into Seekers, which brings me joy.
But we live in troubled times. My lifetime has been lived in troubled times. The year I was born the Marshall Plan was trying to stabilize western Europe before the Soviets could swallow it up. The next year the Chinese government became communist. The year after that, the Korean War began, and Senator Joseph McCarthy claimed to have the names of Communists in the U.S. government. Four years later the Supreme Court held that segregation in public schools had to end, forcing much of the nation to reckon with our racism. The next year Mrs. Parks’ refusal to give up her bus seat to a white person launched the civil rights movement. The next year Soviet troops put down a rebellion in Hungary. In 1957 I remember the shock on my father’s face when the newspaper reported that the Soviets had put a satellite into space. On the last day of 1958, Che Guevara’s rebel troops invaded the center of Cuba and President Bautista resigned. That was just the first decade of my life and every decade since has had troubled times too.
If God’s plan is for me to live in troubled times, I don’t want to accept it. I pray that God will give me times that are more peaceful, less stressful. I want, I need more peaceful, less stressful times. At times I slip into thinking that God owes me peace and calm – I’m a Christian, I’m an American, it’s practically my birthright!
Moses – now there’s a man who lived in troubled times. He had experienced some really great highs in his life: growing up in the Egyptian royal household, getting away with murder and surviving in the desert. When he met God in the burning bush he made a commitment to free God’s people and he was faithful to that commitment, confronting Pharaoh with God’s word and power that set God’s people free, and helping the Israelites to escape from the Egyptian army. But now in the desert Moses was repeatedly having his commitment tested. The Israelites were like two-year olds. “We’re hungry; we were better off in Egypt.” So God provided quails and manna to eat – which was good, but the people had to eat the manna in the morning, except on the sixth day, when they had to boil it so that it would keep for the Sabbath morning. The people griped, “Why can’t we eat it later? Why can’t God provide manna on the Sabbath?” Then, “We’re thirsty, you led us out here to die of thirst in the desert. Is God with us or not?” But then God showed Moses where to strike the rock, and a spring burst out.
Our Hebrew Scriptures lections for both last week and this week skipped over some essential parts of the story. Moses had brought the people to the mountain in the Sinai desert, where God instructed Moses to tell the people that if they obeyed God fully and kept the covenant with God, they would become God’s treasured possession, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. On three different occasions the people all promised, “We will do everything God has said.” Three times they made a commitment and the third time they added, “We will obey.” Moses’ commitment to God was now matched by the people’s commitment to God. They are now accountable to God for faithfully living out that commitment.
By the time we get to this week’s passage Moses had gone back up the mountain. He has spent a long time — 40 days and 40 nights — up there with God, receiving further instructions that will shape this unruly group of people into the people of God. God wrote down the ten key instructions on stone tablets so that they wouldn’t forget their commitment or ever claim that they didn’t know what they had committed to. Moses must have felt he was having a sublime experience to spend that much time in God’s presence.
As we heard in this week’s text, Moses has spent such a long time with God that the people down below got restless. They were worried – it had been a long time and Moses hadn’t come down. Maybe he would never come down. Maybe this God that they didn’t know well has left them to die in the desert! You can feel their anxiety rising, their commitment to God being tested. They lost heart, they became afraid, and they lost faith. The Hebrew people had made their commitment to God, assuming Moses would be with them to lead them. Now he wasn’t and so they assumed that their commitment to his God was now null and void.
We’ve done the same thing. We’ve made commitments, thinking we will abide by them. And then something happens, something we never thought would happen. The situation has changed, and our commitment didn’t include that!
This can happen in a marriage, in the workplace, in a congregation. It happened in the Church of the Saviour. Gordon Cosby announced that he was breaking the church up into smaller congregations, to be discerned through a “New Lands” process. We were upset, we were anxious! That’s not what we committed to! The concerns over what the new Church of the Saviour communities would be like kept us on edge for months, especially when the group that conceived of Seekers was getting some pushback from the church council.
Do you remember how anxious we felt after we decided to buy this building –we had made the commitment after calculating that we would have enough money to renovate the building and pay off its mortgage. And about then Sonya Dyer, our founding co-pastor, announced that she and her husband Manning were moving to North Carolina. Who would replace her gifts of leadership and pastoring? What if we lost members when she left? The situation has changed.
In the story, God abruptly ends Moses’ spiritual elation. “Go down, because your people, whom you brought out of Egypt, have become corrupt. They’ve become quick to turn away from what I commanded them to do and have made themselves an idol cast in the shape of a calf. They have bowed down to it and sacrificed to it and have said, ‘These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.’ I’ll destroy them and will make you, Moses, into the great nation.” God acts as if the Covenant is irreparably broken.
Moses lashes back at God, replying, “When you wanted them brought out of Egypt, they were your people. Now when they disobeyed you, they are suddenly my people? You brought them out of Egypt with your mighty hand; they are your people.” This feels familiar to me. I’m in committed relationships as a spouse, parent, and in Seekers. Sometimes when I am being held accountable my reaction is anger, resentment, going temporarily deaf to whatever the other person is saying, shutting down. I have to fight the desire to lash back, trying to cover over my hurt feelings, especially my injured pride. In those situations, it takes me some time to get over my anger. I hope those of you who have known me a long time have seen some improvement. I’m still learning…
Back to the story. Surprisingly, Moses talks God out of destroying the people. Why? His life could have been much easier if he had let God destroy them. But he didn’t Why is Moses so committed to this challenging bunch of people? Because they’re his kinfolk? Because he sees potential hidden, deeply hidden, in them? Because his pride balks at the idea that the Egyptians will know that led the people into the desert to die? The Bible doesn’t state any of these as the reason.
Maybe Moses is speaking out of his experience with commitment. A commitment lasts through troubled times, times that can make you want to end it. Moses appeals to God’s pride: “Do you want the Egyptians to mock you?” and reminds God of the previous commitments of blessings to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, each of whom had done things that were less than honorable. Somehow these appeals worked. God spares the people. This week’s story ends there, and the lectionary for next week skips over what happened when Moses came face to face with the people and their golden calf. Hint – it left a bad taste in their mouths. But they remained the people chosen by God; they still are, trying to live out the Convenant faithfully.
Gordon Cosby had wrestled with the issue of commitment as an Army chaplain during World War II. He had nurtured paratroopers into making commitments to Christ, then watched them backslide from their faith when the threat of combat receded. From that experience he decided that the Church of the Saviour members would make a commitment for only one year at a time, including a period near the end of the year to reflect on whether to renew their commitment for another year. Members were expected to share their reflections and their decision in their spiritual reports and within their mission groups, so that they all could benefit from everyone’s reflections. This is an important tradition that continues to shape Seekers. Our shorter commitment is just as serious, but feels lighter, less burdensome. If you are new to Seekers and have questions about commitment and recommitment but didn’t attend the Zoom drop-in session on recommitment this week, there is another session scheduled for Wednesday morning.
People who join a mission group also make a commitment to it. When a mission group is full of the Holy Spirit, being held accountable for one’s actions in furthering the mission can also be light rather than burdensome. We can feel ourselves grow in the Spirit. But a mission group is as fragile an earthen vessel as its members are. Giving up one’s personal autonomy to the group can be exceedingly difficult for some people, so when they are held accountable it can produce disruptive behavior, anger, resentment, and tears. I’ve come to believe that mission groups might not be a good fit for everyone. You do not have to join a mission group to commit or recommit to Seekers Church. Unfortunately, you will miss out on opportunities to offer and receive mercy, forgiveness, and rebirth. Belonging to a mission group is an opportunity for your spiritual growth.
This week our epistle reading comes from Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi, a letter written during troubled times. His letter had started off by greeting them with “grace and peace from God and Jesus Christ.” The bulk of his letter is about living in a way that is worthy of the gospel, emphasizing the need for being like-minded, avoiding selfish ambition and vain conceit, modeling humility in the way Christ did, avoiding grumbling and arguing.
There was conflict in the congregation – there was frequently conflict in the congregations Paul knew – between two women who had worked closely with Paul and others in bringing the gospel. We don’t know what these two women’s quarrel was about. Was it about doctrine? About methods or style? Was it about their different personalities? Had one hurt the other? Had one tried to confront the other about her statements or her behaviors “in sisterly love” but been rebuffed?
Near the end of his letter, Paul confronts the situation directly. He pleads with each of the two women to be of the same mind in the Lord, and he asks his true companion – exactly who this is we’re not sure – to help them. Can you imagine how they felt when this letter was read to the congregation? Could they overcome the shame with humility, with a renewed willingness to work together?
Paul closes his letter with exhortations – to rejoice in God always. To be gentle, so that everyone can see it. To avoid being anxious about anything but to present their requests to God with thanksgiving in prayer and petition. And he promises that God’s peace will guard their hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Remember, he wrote this during troubled times.
Isn’t that what we are longing for in our troubling times? To have God’s peace? Are we open to God’s peace? One way to be open to God’s peace is to commit to this local expression of the Body of Christ for a year. You don’t have to make a lifetime commitment; we just invite you to commit for a year. You don’t have to walk on water, you just have to wade into our flow for a year. We don’t ask you to agree to a creed. But try to love God with all your mind, heart, and soul and strength and try to love your neighbor as yourself. Be willing to be held accountable for that, remembering to ask for and to offer forgiveness to each other.
May God’s peace guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, even during a pandemic, even during these troubled times.