Seekers Church: A Christian Community
In the Tradition of the Church of the Saviour
Sermon: September 29, 2002
Commitment Takes Trust … and Obedience
From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarreled with Moses, and said, "Give us water to drink." Moses said to them, "Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?" But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, "Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?" So Moses cried out to the Lord, "What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me." The Lord said to Moses, "Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink." Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, "Is the Lord among us or not?"
When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching and said, "By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?" Jesus said to them, "I will ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?" And they argued with one another, "If we say, 'From heaven,' he will say to us, 'Why then did you not believe him? But if we say, 'Of human origin,' we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet." So they answered Jesus, "We do not know." And he said to them, "Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things. What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, 'Son, go and work in the vineyard today.' He answered, 'I will not'; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered 'I go, sir'; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?" They said, "The first." Jesus said to them, "Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him."
Trust and Obedience
Less than three months after their miraculous salvation at the Sea of Reeds, the Israelites moved their encampment to Rephidim. They had been in the desert for about six weeks, where they had begun to receive manna from God. Not the best diet in the world, but good enough. You'd think they might have begun to listen to Moses by then, and follow his lead. You might think that the constant presence of the Holy Mystery that went before them as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night might have built up their confidence. But six weeks isn't very long, and Moses had them on the move again.
So when they finally got everyone to Rephidim, they discovered that there was no water! They were in constant turbulence in those early days of the Exodus. It isn't surprising that the people quarreled with Moses: "Give us water to drink." Water is more necessary than food, so I suppose this crisis was testing their trust at a deeper level than the food crisis they'd just endured.
The Exodus narrative says that they had come to Rephidim from the wilderness of Sin, between Sinai, and the oasis at Elim where there were twelve springs. Now Moses had told them to set up camp in a dry, barren valley, here the air was as hot as an oven. I imagine that they could close their eyes and smell the waters of Elim. That would have made their water crisis even more painful. Life was very uncertain, and they didn't like that. Many would have preferred a quick return to slavery in Egypt, and said so.
Like the Israelites, we, too are living in turbulent, perilous times: the AIDS epidemic continues, our cities and states can't pay for the services we need, poor countries stagger under the burden of debt, business is bad, employment is down, the threat of terrorism has made us all uneasy, and now our government is making preparations to attack Iraq to insure that they will be disarmed. It is no wonder that we are feeling frightened and quarrelsome. And it's not much of a stretch for me to identify with the Israelites.
Faced with this new challenge, Moses did what had become the core of his spiritual discipline. He offered his own fears to God: "What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me." Moses' trust in God, begun in the encounter at the burning bush, would mark his spiritual journey for the rest of his life. He brought his fear to God, and waited for an answer.
This time God's answer was as unconventional as usual: "Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink." It was unconventional, yes; but Moses obeyed, and the Israelites had water again. Bread and water for the journey.
Looking at this story, I've been struck by the contrast in the level of trust between Moses and God, and Moses and the people. Moses had been given enough signs to trust God, but the people were still learning to trust Moses, a process that would take forty years of hardship and wandering.
When it comes to trust, we face the same kinds of challenges as the Israelites. In the Old Lands — before September 11th, before the economy went South, before Seekers Church decided to move to Carroll Street, before the Church of the Saviour divided into the separate communities twenty-six years ago — then it was easier to trust in the future. At least it seemed easier. Now, with so much uncertainty around us, trust is more important than ever, but so much harder to build.
Commitment to the Future Requires Trust
At Seekers Church we are in the middle of our annual period of recommitment. This is the time when we reconsider our commitment to Christ, and our commitment to this church, this small part of the Body of Christ. All the work we are doing together can help us build our trust in one another. Planning and coordinating the renovation at Carroll Street, reinterpreting our understanding of leadership within Seekers Church, introducing ourselves to the Takoma Park community, continuing our traditions of worship and silent retreat and community gatherings like the overnights at Wellspring, joining our voices against an attack on Iraq — all require us to share our dreams and our fears, and learn how we can stand together in the presence of God as we live into an unknown future.
Each year during our recommitment season the Servant Leadership Team offers a short guide for reflection on recommitment. This year we offered some questions to help focus our attention on call, participation in common worship, community life, personal spiritual growth and commitment to the future.
The reflection questions begin with a focus on call. "In Seekers, we believe that God calls each person and the community as a body, to a life of meaning and purpose.
· Do you view yourself as living out a call from God?
· What is that call, and how are you living it out?
I suspect that these questions would not have surprised Moses. And they don't surprise us, either. In fact, they are a frequent focus of conversation at coffee hour after worship. I discovered last Tuesday that they are also at the core of the "Becoming Fire" class in the School of Christian Living this semester. Whether you are taking the class or not, I commend them to your reflection.
· Do you view yourself as living out a call from God?
· What is that call, and how are you living it out?
Deepening Call Takes Trust
It's important to keep reflecting on how God is calling you, because call keeps growing. For several years I've been feeling the sense that I want to do more art – poetry, fiber sculpture, wrapped rocks. But that comes up against the strong sense I have that what Seekers Church needs from me is more organizational, more analytical, more detail-oriented than "art." And so my studio gets only an occasional visit while I spend lots of time helping keep all our meetings and activities tied together, at least in my own mind.
Two weeks ago I had an interesting glimpse of something new that seems tied to God's call on me. I was on the airplane on the way to my 45th high school reunion in Leavenworth, Kansas. I had never attended a high school reunion, but "45" is a big number, and I decided to go. I'm sure that the prospect of meeting all my high school classmates "for the first time," put me in a reflective mood as I headed from Chicago to Kansas City. Maybe it was the book I was reading, "The Threat of Life: Sermons on Pain, Power and Weakness," by Walter Brueggemann. (It's a hard, exhilarating read.)
As we reached cruising altitude, I put down the book and dropped into one of those unfocused, meditative places. And these words came: "Am I being called to climb over the rim of raw clay … to remove the right hand of structure … to abandon to others the task of keeping the form of community … of keeping the shape … to climb over the soft, wet rim into the darkness of the vessel-in-formation … to push out … speak out … cry out for justice? Am I ready to take the flak I will attract for being prophetic?" The pottery image worked for me. The right hand is outside the pot on the wheel, holding the shape, while the left hand works from within, releasing the clay so it can expand to take the form that is emerging in the mind of the potter.
That happened two weeks ago, and the bush is still burning. The words are still too fresh for me to be able to say all that they mean, or will come to mean, but the image was so strong that it won't let go of me. I know that I need to sit with this as a part of my own recommitment to Christ and to this community.
I've been reflecting on Gordon Cosby's clear, exemplary commitment to prophetic speech, and how lightly he has always held the structures of community. And when I heard the excited reports of the group of the Seekers who have come together to find a common voice to speak out against American warfare against Iraq, the bush flared again!
One part of me … an old, well-exercised part of me … fears that if I don't do the detailed work I've been doing, no-one else will do it and we will suffer as a community. But I also know that there are things that I do because I really don't like the silence that so often follows a request for help, and I can easily jump in before others have a chance to feel their feelings and get their thoughts sorted out. This is a growing edge for me. I don't know where it will lead, but I'm paying attention. And I know that I need to trust you to help me be obedient.
Trust and Obey
Obedience to God commits us to a long journey in the wilderness. Look at Moses. First God called Moses out of hiding in Midian and gave him an impossible task: "Free my people." Then God made sure that Moses would survive and have the power he needed to confront Pharaoh. Then God called Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, and made it possible for them to leave well-provisioned for the journey. And then (and only then) Moses learned that he was being called to be the leader of a tribe of people who would wander in the wilderness for forty years before they learned enough trust and obedience to claim the land that God had reserved for them.
The last set of questions on our recommitment reflection looks at commitment to the future. It says, "This is a time of great uncertainty in the life of the nation and the church. Seekers Church is on a faith journey with new opportunities for richer life as a part of the Body of Christ.
· How are you being called to be part of these new opportunities?
· What do you need from Seekers during these uncertain times?
I look at these questions, and think of how the folks in Rephidim might have answered them. By then, only six weeks into their year-long period of preparation for the Promised Land, I'll bet that most of them were NOT feeling called to face into these "new opportunities" with enthusiasm. But from the narrative it's pretty clear that they could identify some things they needed from their faith community … beginning with bread and water. It would take time for them to build their trust and learn the liberating value of obedience.
Obedience is a tricky thing. It isn't always clear who one ought to obey. A quick look at the Gospel for this week gives us an interesting, complicated lesson on obedience. When confronted by the chief priests questioning his authority, Jesus gives them the parable of the father asking his two sons to work in the vineyard. One son agrees to go and then does not; the other refuses, then has a change of heart and obeys. Although it is clear to the chief priests that actions speak louder than words and obedience to God is at the core of the faith journey, it isn't clear that they were ready to accept the authority of Jesus. His method was to confront them with a dilemma that made them think again. They didn't get it, but we have another chance, to think again about authority and open a path for better understanding. For those who take it, that path leads to deeper trust.
It took the Israelites a long time to learn to trust God and obey the guidance they received even when it flew in the face of conventional wisdom. There is an interesting detail at the beginning of the story of the Exodus, one that's never really caught my attention before now. In Exodus 13:17, the story says: "When Pharaoh had let the people go, God did not let them take the road to the land of the Philistines, although that was the nearest way. God thought that the prospect of fighting would make the people lose heart and turn back to Egypt. Instead, God led the people by the roundabout way of the wilderness to the Sea of Reeds."
God sent the chosen people on a long, arduous path, a path that would be filled with one opportunity after another to face hardship together so that they would learn that the strength that sustained them was from God and not from them. Moses played an important role in helping the people learn to trust each other, and to trust and obey God. Without the trials of the Exodus, and the exasperated patience of Moses, who knows how our story would have turned out?
As we face into the fear and uncertainty of this recommitment season, there are also a couple of lessons for us in this week's Epistle lesson. Paul is writing to the little church in Philippi, sending them one of his letters of encouragement and guidance. He tells them: "If there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you not look to your own interests, but to the interests of others." (Philippians 2:1-4.)
Paul says, "Make my day! Love and trust each other, so you can obey God and keep bringing the Good News into being!" Love like that doesn't happen overnight. It takes working together long enough to discover a trust that can hold firm in the face of surprise, threat and gnawing uncertainty. It takes the discipline of listening, listening carefully to God and then going to work in the vineyard even when that does not feel like good news. And it takes listening in love to each other, learning when to share the manna we have, when to ask for help, and when to push back and invite us all to think again. Love is built on learning to trust and care for each other.
And with all that listening, we shouldn't be too surprised when God says – after we've crossed the Reed Sea – "Oh, by the way, I think you need a little time for reflection before you enter the Promised Land. Turn south and follow that faint path into the desert!"
These are tough times, maybe not as tough as finding yourself camped in the desert with no water, but still tough. The Good News in God's story is that tough times are a wonderful opportunity to build trust and learn the joy of obedience.
So, what do I draw from all this? Three things:
· Obedience isn't easy, but it is the path to a closer walk with God;
· Without trust, obedience is submission rather than celebration; and
· Trust takes time, collaboration and good communication.
As we move into the wilderness before us, I pray for three things. First, I pray that we may see our fears and tensions as opportunities to deepen our trust in each other. Second, I pray that we are learning through our life together that we have a common commitment to be what we claim to be — one little, lively part of the Body of Christ. Finally, I pray that as we move toward Carroll Street, God will call us into the vineyard, to offer the Good News to others in as ways we never imagined.
May God help us learn how to trust … and obey!
Reflection Questions For Recommitment To Seekers Church
Call. In Seekers, we believe that God calls each person and the community as a body, to a life of meaning and purpose. The call of Seekers Church, which has guided us for the past 25 years, is included on the last page of this paper.
- Do you view yourself as living out a call from God?
- What is that call, and how are you living it out?
Participation in Common Worship. The life of Seekers is centered in corporate worship.
- Is Sunday worship with Seekers a priority for you?
- Are you fed by this experience? How?
Community Life. Seekers Church offers each of us different opportunities to participate in the life of the community. We count on the leading of the Holy Spirit in each other to bring forth our gifts and make Seekers what it is now and what it will become in the future.
- Where do you offer yourself into the life of Seekers Church, and how are you received there?
- How do you hope your presence will make a difference in the coming year — to you, within Seekers and in the wider circle of God’s Creation?
Personal Spiritual Growth. Seekers Church is committed to spiritual growth for everyone in the community.
- Do you take your spiritual life seriously?
- Are the practices of daily quiet time and other spiritual disciplines a priority for you to nurture your inner life?
Commitment to the Future. This is a time of great uncertainty in the life of the nation and the church. Seekers Church is on a faith journey with new opportunities for richer life as a part of the Body of Christ.
- How are you being called to be part of these new opportunities?
- What do you need from Seekers during these uncertain times?