Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost
September 10, 2023
Text: Matt 18:15-20
Today marks the beginning of our Recommitment Season, which will end on the third Sunday of October – when we will have the opportunity to stand and speak aloud our commitment as a Member of Seekers. Then some of us will make an additional commitment as Stewards.
The Member’s commitment is open to anyone who wants to be intentional about their spiritual growth. The Steward’s commitment adds two important aspects: belief in the Trinity and care for the whole community. We also expect additional commitments of time and money from Stewards, but that core group is open to anyone who is called to invest in the overall health of the Seekers community.
During this season of reflection on the whole matter of commitment to a community, you will be hearing from other members of the Learners & Teachers, because we know that part of our call as a mission group is offering some of the preparation needed for membership in this particular form of community – where shared leadership and intentional growth is the norm. Releasing other more hierarchical forms of community often takes some time, effort and interaction as we practice how to love one another.
Recommitment, of course, is based on some initial commitment, which begins with some form of attraction that lasts over time. The most obvious example for me is marriage. When Peter proposed in 1960, I was teary at the prospect of spending the rest of my life with him, wondering if we would have the capacity to weather the storms that I could barely imagine in that moment. I’ve since learned that tears are a sign of holy ground for me – a burning bush kind of sign from beyond myself – perhaps even a call from God. I didn’t have that kind of language then, but I registered the experience enough to recognize the feeling of call.
And to be honest, there have been seasons of recommitment in our marriage too. The yearly anniversary has become a time of naming those things that we particularly value about our relationship. And, looking back, I can see that every decade has brought some new kind of challenge and a deeper level of surrender to the commitment that we share. By now, recommitment feels normal, but no less important to examine.
When we arrived at Seekers in July of 1976, the upcoming October date for Recommitment Sunday was, in fact, the official birth of Seekers – almost 50 years ago now. What we didn’t know at the time was that the preceding months were full of debate about the nature of Seekers’ call. In April of that year, the Church of the Saviour Council had turned down the call that Fred Taylor and Sonya Dyer submitted for their approval – because it was not focused on a single outward mission. I suspect the feminist language was also a barrier, although Council minutes do not reflect that. [You can read that first call in the appendix of my book, Stalking the Spirit in a Do-It-Yourself Church.]
Fred and Sonya reworked the call of Seekers and it was approved in September of ’76, just in time for 18 core members of Church of the Saviour to commit themselves to a broader vision of call than they had known before. The language of Seekers’ call said this: Our perception of mission includes the normal structures of our daily lives: work, family and primary relationships, citizenship and mission group.
The idea that mission could take place at home, in our place of secular employment or in our practice of good citizenship as well as in a church-sponsored mission group was very different from the single-mission focus of the other C of S communities forming at that time.
Another difference was the vision for shared leadership and formal worship that Fred and Sonya had. Fred was an ordained Baptist minister who was leading FLOC (For Love of Children), which was a mission of Church of the Saviour, and he missed preaching regularly. Sonya believed that good liturgy – especially inclusive language for community prayers – would shape people’s understanding of God, so together they offered Seekers a positive vision for creative liturgy that still guides our Sunday worship to express a dynamic relationship with the Holy One.
Only the core members – what we now call Stewards – made their commitment on that first Recommitment Sunday in 1976. There was no place for the rest of us to express our intention to continue with Seekers in those early days.
Internally, I was trying to figure out what made this church different from others that we had attended. I liked seeing Fred and Sonya serve communion together. I noticed that women seemed to have an equal voice among the core members. We felt welcome, even though Peter was still in the Army, and I knew this church had been active in the anti-war movement during Vietnam, but we were not treated as symbols of the war or outsiders who needed correction.
As a full-time potter with a studio at the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria, I wondered what my call could possibly be, so I took classes in the School of Christian Living and simply waited for something to develop. Although I felt “called” to pottery, that didn’t seem to have enough social justice in it. After a couple of classes, we each joined a separate mission group and let that be enough of a commitment for awhile.
Seekers emphasis on call was quite different from churches I had known before. I was used to church as a hierarchical organization that one joined, then supported with extra cash and volunteer time. Only the pastor spoke of being called. In more conservative churches, the emphasis was on conversion. In my experience, conversion implied that you were now “saved” and would eventually go to heaven. By definition then, others were “lost” or “not saved.” That insider/outsider attitude made us both uncomfortable. In our years of moving around with Peter’s Army assignments, we usually volunteered to lead the junior-high youth group and that was always welcomed. Meanwhile, I think the Holy Spirit was at work.
What Ken described last week as “authority at the point of call” is, in fact, a dynamic structure for spiritual growth – and that was quite different from showing up for committee meetings and arguing about the budget. I began to recognize that mission group life required time and attention, self-reflection and ongoing practice in countless acts of giving and receiving that happen in a shared-work community like this one.
It took me some years to see the difference between church as a static organizational structure with a narrow definition of call as a particular vocation, and church as an organic body of Christ, enlivened by the Holy Spirit, where call spirals through one’s entire life – which is how I would describe our theology of call here at Seekers. In that framework, commitment becomes a stabilizing intention rather than a rule or requirement.
Seekers emphasis on call also gave me new eyes for scripture. For example, in the Exodus text for today, you heard Kevin read directions to the Hebrew people about celebrating Passover each year as a new beginning. Although the description seems bloody and crude, and we could get caught up in a discussion of animal sacrifice, the description also suggests the bloody act of childbirth to mark a new beginning. It’s dynamic, dangerous and dramatic! And now I see that Passover was a yearly act of recommitment.
Sharon read from Paul’s letter to the Romans about the kind of love that is a fulfillment of the Law. No longer is the emphasis on a long list of complex rules. LOVE never wrongs anyone, Paul says. And that means NOBODY is victimized. Nobody is “other.” Nobody is demonized. To love your neighbor as yourself implies a radical welcome which takes extraordinary spiritual maturity.
My sense is that loving our neighbors as ourselves is a lifetime quest that needs constant attention – which is one reason why we need community – to practice loving with people we are committed to already. The text from Matthew is quite specific about how we are to grow in our ability to love like that:
If your sister or brother should commit some wrong against you, go and point out the error, but keep it between the two of you. If she or he listens to you, you have won a loved one back: if not, try again, but take one or two others with you, so that every case may stand on the word of two or three.
If your sister or brother refuses to listen to them, refer the matter to the church. If she or he ignores even the church, then treat that sister or brother as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.
In other words, resolve your differences face to face if possible. But if that’s not possible after repeated tries, then “treat that sister or brother as you would a Gentile” or non-believer – and we need to remember that Jesus got into trouble by inviting Gentiles and tax-collectors to his table. I think Matthew’s formula means no revenge, no targeting or entrapment, no threats or vengeance. Just distance.
Taken together, the scriptures assigned for today suggest a nuanced picture of call, commitment and community. Recommitment illuminates change, and opens the door to growth. It’s a dynamic process of spiritual evolution that never ends.
I’d like to close by reading Lindsay Fertig-Johnson’s InwardOutward reflection on this text:
“Life in community is so beautiful. Life in community is so hard. There is so much I love about living in community with others. There is so much joy in walking with others through the highs and the lows of life. Community makes us stronger, reminds us that we are not alone, and helps us to see the ways God works in our lives both individually and collectively. Jesus tells his followers that where two or more are gathered surely, that is where we find God,* yet he doesn’t shy away from the fact that disagreements and conflict arise when two or more are gathered. As humans walking through life together, we know what it is like to experience the joys and struggles of community. As humans, we often make mistakes and hurt one another intentionally or by accident. We often want different things and more often than not, think we have the correct answer, the correct opinion, the correct belief. This text reminds us that life together is not going to be easy, but we have the opportunity to come to one another to share our pain and our hurt, even at the hands of another person in community. It is a reminder of the ways that the triune God calls us together in the midst of disagreement and struggle, and the ways God appears among us: in joyous times and in hardship. After all, life in community is so beautiful. Life in community is so hard.”
Lindsay Fertig-Johnson, “Life in Community” https://inwardoutward.org/life-in-community/