September 6, 2020
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
It has been a chaotic summer. Avoiding the pandemic has isolated us from each other, giving us more time alone to worry and more pent up energy to react. Rising confrontation over racial injustice has stoked fear and concern. And the acceleration of election campaign combat is souring the media, leaving a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. The tension has infected our lives in many ways. For most of us, this opens the gate to denial, depression, and disconnection.
These ARE the times that try one’s soul. In some cases, though, all this negativity has given us fleeting opportunities for deeper reflection and new action. We have shared some of those deeper reflections in different ways here in Seekers. Several recent sermons went very deep and have been received with open hearts.
This is not the first time that the human species has been in chaos. But so far we have found our way through. Our Hebrew Scripture reading for this week, the story of the beginning of the Passover, is a good example of how a people came together, committed themselves to God and each other, moved into an unknown future and found new stability. I know, none of these journeys of metamorphosis have been perfect. But cultures have survived and continue to grow as we find new ways to center in God.
Reflecting today on these journeys through the unknown has given me a sense that what I need right now, more than a map of how to get to the other side of the chaos is something to help me stay the course along an unmarked path. I’m pondering the idea that commitment can be a compass to help us stay the course in times of chaos. Let me try to explain.
COMMITMENT AND THE PASSOVER
When God called Moses to lead the people out of Egypt, the topic of last week’s Hebrew Scripture reading, he had them gather as a people and mark their homes so God would know to spare their firstborn from death. I’m pretty sure God would have known whose lives to spare without the blood on the doorposts and lintels. But the ritual of feasting together and marking the doors was an important reinforcement of their identity of this enslaved people.
The Hebrew people have been renewing that commitment every year since they began as a slave community in Pharaoh’s Egypt.
After leaving Egypt, the Israelites wandered in the desert for a long time. It was a time of deepening their understanding of the power of being together, the power and the problems. They needed rules and guidelines to help them live together. Those guidelines, rules like the Ten Commandments, and the growing body of law were held firmly to insure the health and safety of the people. Commandments and the law are good examples of essential elements of that compass I’m trying to describe.
But somewhere along the way it became clear that “HOW” you followed the law was at least as important as “WHAT” the law required. “How you treat others?” is another core element of the compass that Jesus was teaching. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” “Do the loving thing.”
HOW CAN WE UNDERSTAND OUR OWN PAIN IN A HEALING WAY?
But how we interpret the law is really important, and my sense of myself affects how I respond to the law, no matter its source.
As long as I continue to project my inner fear and pain on others, I’m convinced that I have all the answers. That makes it much easier to feel right, and righteous… and part of the problem.
One day this week I woke with a memory of a book that made an important impression on me about 35 years ago, Faces of the Enemy by Sam Keene. Written when Ronald Reagan was our President, during the height of the Cold War, Faces of the Enemy describes the deep-seated drives in our consciousness to create “enemies” so we have some place to dump our fear and sense of inadequacy.
At the top of the first page of text Keen said that he wrote Faces of the Enemy “… for the new breed of heroes and heroines who dare to struggle with the enemy within and look at the shadow of evil that obscures every human heart.” That resonated with so many current concerns and conversations about injustice and fear of judgement and repression that I knew I needed to dig deeper.
Here’s an early piece that spoke to me where I seem to be, seeking to deepen my roots as part of the Body of Christ, finding it hard to breathe in the chaos of these days. Looking forward two generations to today, Sam Keen observed in 1985:
“Politicians of both the left and the right keep getting things backward. They assume the enemy will vanish if only we manage our weapons differently. Conservatives believe the enemy will be frightened into civility if we have bigger and better weapons. Liberals believe the enemy will become our friend if we have smaller and fewer weapons. Booth proceed from rationalistic, optimistic assumptions: we human beings are reasonable, pragmatic, tool-making animals. We have progressed this far in history by becoming Homo sapiens (“rational human”) and Homo faber (tool-making human). Therefore, we can make peace by rational negotiation and arms control. [Faces of the Enemy, pg 10]
Our reality is changing at many levels, which might just be an invitation to our own inner change. We’re hearing the stories with different ears because the Body is changing as well – the Body of Creation, The Body of culture, the Body of community, or family or self.
As individuals, we are changing. Since the shutdown to avoid the pandemic began there have been a lot of health changes illnesses like cancer and Covid-19, among us, new hips and knees, and other signs of aging. And there have been positive changes as well including graduations and a marriage.
As a community we have grown and changed as well. When I see that there are more than 50 active screens as we gather on Zoom to worship, I’m aware that the times, they are a changin’. While our community is growing on line, our building is growing older and wearing down.
For many of us the nature of our connections with the wider culture is changing too. More remote meetings, more phone calls, less travel, and for some, more video entertainment.
As a culture, while the pandemic is pushing us apart, concerns over racial violence are calling us together. Politics is raising tension. And there is the concern over global overload -climate change – more hurricanes and typhoons, more heat, more wildfires.
All of these changes are causing many to point fingers at someone else, berating them for their failure to do things “right.” It really feels like an “us versus them” world out there. That may seem new, but really, it’s been around for a long time.
HOW CAN WE LOVE EACH OTHER BETTER IN THESE CHANGING TIMES?
I’ve been reflecting on commitment, how changes in our selves and the “Bodies” we belong to might affect our commitments, and how we might search for healing paths through this time of seeing all things new. A while ago I ran across an important observation by Marcus Borg in Convictions: How I learned What Matters Most. A major focus of this book is on the image of faith as a journey and God as a mystery.
In this rapidly changing world, we need to find ways to search out the center of that mystery, fresh practices to deepen our commitment and fresh ways to see how we are doing. Our annual commitment to be on a spiritual journey together can help give us the freedom and courage we need to stay on the path.
In some sense it echoes the choice before the Hebrew people as God, speaking through Moses and Aaron, called them to decide they were together as a community and would follow the Creator out of slavery in Egypt into a new land. Their marks of commitment helped them hold each other accountable and support each other as they entered the chaos of the desert.
The time they spent in the desert was a time of change for the Hebrew people, an opportunity for them to earn new ways to live together and learn to love each other in new environments.
As we move into our annual season of recommitment, contemplating what it will mean for each of us as individuals to affirm our relationship to God and Seekers Church, how are changes in our community affecting our personal commitment to THIS Body?
For me, this has a strong resonance with our prayer of commitment, the one we pray together whenever we gather for worship:
Give us strength and discipline
to nurture our relationship with you;
to care for every part of your creation;
to foster justice and be in solidarity with those in need;
to work to end all war, and violence, and discord;
and to respond joyfully when you call,
freely giving our selves as you have shown the way.
Here’s an introduction from Convictions on the importance of finding a deeper center in God:
Centering in God transforms us. It changes us. It produces what Paul called ‘the fruit of the Spirit’ and ‘the gifts of the Spirit.’ It is what Jesus meant when he said, ‘You will know them by their fruits.’ The fruits of centering in God are many and intertwined, but the most important are compassion, freedom and courage, and gratitude. Sequencing them is thus not about their relative importance; they all go together. [Borg. Convictions, p 224]
Borg suggests that closer centering in God will be marked by new qualities. Might we call the “flavors?” For Borg, these “flavors” of fruits of the Spirit centered in God in include compassion, freedom and courage, and gratitude.
Compassion, he says, is an essential element in centering in God. The core element that compassion brings, he suggests, is a focus on nurture, the kind of nurture that wells up in a loving parent as they walk with their children along the path leading to loving maturity.
This goes beyond “I feel your pain.” It pulls us to our feet and out the door, to stand with those in need or suffering from injustice. It puts our noses deep in the stench of inequity and gets us moving, being on the Way with others who are working for peace AND justice.
As you contemplate God’s call on you right now, one thing to consider is “How has my compassion for others being called forth, or challenged, by these chaotic times?” Where can I turn for compassionate support when my commitment seems to lag? Compassion is an important, transforming dimension for transforming the way we center in God in these chaotic times.
Freedom and Courage
Freedom and courage together, the middle flavor, will add a savory bite to commitment. In Convictions Marcus Borg asks us to “(r)eflect now on what our lives would be like if we were free from fear and anxiety.” In these chaotic times, those reflections may take many paths. There are a lot of stories in the Bible where Jesus, or an angel, offers the comforting reassurance, “Fear not!” When we realize that we are confident as we stand barefoot before that burning bush, others will know that courage and be encouraged themselves.
I am reminded of the freedom and courage that radiated from Kate Cudlipp as she lay dying, paralyzed from the neck down after her bicycle accident, yet conscious and ready to lay down her life so that others could get on with theirs. After a career working for peace and justice in the halls of the Senate, it was Kate who gave us the rallying cry “Thank God we’re in this together!” I remember and am encouraged by Kate every time I hear that.
As we become more centered in God, our freedom and courage will grow. It takes time, but we are not alone.
Marcus Borg identifies gratitude as both a feeling and an awareness. As a feeling it fills us with a wordless sense of thanksgiving. As an awareness, gratitude wakes us up to the reality that all of life is a gift from God. When we are aware of that feeling of gratitude it is more difficult to be cruel or manipulative or greedy. Gratitude helps encourage our compassion and free us for loving our neighbor as ourselves.
And us … what is our commitment to be on the Way with Christ?
- How will we mark ourselves to help us remember our commitment?
- How can we understand our own pain in a healing way?
- How can we love each other in these changing times?
We can recognize those changes as we deepen our centering in God.
The times, they are a changin’!
The sense of solidarity I’ve felt standing at the curb on Friday afternoons holding up my “Protect the Constitution” sign amongst our “Black Lives Matter” signs as cars and busses honk their horns and drivers and riders pump their fists in solidarity is opening me to think again about my own reluctance to political activism. As a career federal employee I took the Hatch Act very seriously, always avoiding public expression of my personal political stand. Now I’m growing more aware of the importance of questioning old assumptions … hearing old stories again with new ears, claiming the courage to stand up and speak out to witness to injustice.
Our worship theme, “Hearing stories again for the first time,” has invited us all to reflect on some of our own deep pain in new ways. And our commitment to stand together, as one small part of the Body of Christ has provided safe space for deep sharing, the kind that opens the door to deeper healing.
As we close this season of hearing stories in new ways and turn to our season of recommitment, I’m aware that this year of chaotic disruption seems to be opening the door to deep change in areas beyond the stories we tell ourselves.
In spite of all the frustration I feel over the chaos all around us, I have a deep sense that our God, the Creator of all reality has instilled in this form of life a sense of order, a moral compass, that is deeper than the selfish motivations that seem to be keeping the chaos alive and seething. Part of our call is to practice getting closer to God so we can more clearly comprehend and express that love.
As faithful Seekers, committed to welcoming and including all who come as we work for peace and justice in the many places where we are rooted, we have many opportunities to implement the guidelines Paul laid out for the church in Rome, the guidelines we red this week, summarized in a phrase as “love your neighbor as yourself.” We can work on that in community. It won’t be easy, but we have the compass of commitment to help keep us on course. May God be with us as we metamorphosize into a new being: “homo amandi,” the loving human. May it be so.