October 17, 2021
On the first Sunday of this Recommitment Season, Marjory challenged us to think of these six weeks as a time for reflection on the commitments in each of our lives, and especially our commitments here at Seekers. It is all of our answers, she reminded us, that will ultimately shape our life together.
Since then, several preachers have confessed to their own failings and shortcomings as a way to illuminate how our commitments, and how we do or do not live up to them, shape our understanding of God, of our individual selves, and our life in community.
Early on, Elizabeth talked about her fears as demons, threatening that if she were to tell the truth about her feelings and perceptions, people might get mad and be unpleasant in her direction. Or, perhaps worse, she might disappoint someone she loves. She spoke about learning to practice staring down the demon of fear, opening her heart to deeper relationship, to choosing the path of love.
Dave confessed to spiritual pride, to making the act of commitment, itself, into an idol, and finally seeing that his rigid interpretation had become a stumbling block to the faith of others. In recognizing his own failure to live up to the commitments he has made, he learned something important about inclusiveness, humility, and loving others as they are rather than as we imagine they should be.
The following week, John admitted to his tendency to believe that he can pile up spiritual treasures as a guarantee for entering God’s realm. He confessed his own desire for accolades, for being admired for his spiritual bling, and his inability to find God in solitude. He has discovered that he needs to be in community, where we remind each other that God loves the least of us, at our most vain and helpless.
Finally, last week, Ken confessed to his inability to maintain certain practices that, were he to do them daily, would support his physical, mental, and spiritual well-being. Using his own history of resistance to surrendering his whole self to God, he asked each of us to consider what keeps us from true commitment in any area of our lives, including to God and to Seekers.
Today, I’m going to accept this invitation to reflect on my own relationship to commitment, and what that means for my own life as a follower of Jesus and as a member of this church. I will begin with a confession about today’s sermon. I’ve actually lost track of all the times that I have preached on this day, and it turns out that I may have said all that I have to say on the subject. In fact, when I sat down to write what I might say this morning, the first thing I wrote was almost a word-for-word copy of where I started last year — a sure sign that I’d run out of ideas
Indeed, as I considered my commitment to preach today, I realized that I had made it in a moment of spiritual pride, of thinking that I have such a handle on what commitment means that I need to claim the Recommitment Sunday preaching slot before anyone else. In fact, what I really know too much about – or at least what I practice most faithfully – is not true commitment, but OVER-commitment. I say “yes” to too many things because I like to feel useful and competent; because I am afraid that if I say “no” to something I am offered, even if I don’t really want to do it, I will lose the next chance to do something that I actually want to do; and because I have this fantasy that the more I do, the more God will love me. It turns out that I’m wrong about most of that.
In fact, I’m a lot like the protagonists of our Gospel story for this morning. As we just heard, the brothers James and John come to Jesus asking him to give them the best seats in his court when he is in charge of things. When he asks them if they are able to drink the cup that he will drink, and be baptized as he will be baptized, they glibly say that they are. Dreaming of glory rather the cup of anguish and the baptism of blood that Jesus knows await him, they assure him that of course they are able to do whatever is needed. In reply, Jesus says, yes, these things will come to you, also, but it’s not up to me to decide who gets special treatment in the realm of God. And when the rest of the disciples get angry at James and John for asking Jesus to put them first, he sighs and says, You are all used to a world in which the people in charge get to tell everyone else what to do, but it won’t be like that in the realm of God. In the upside-down world that God dreams of, the greatest honor goes to those who serve others, and pour out their lives for the healing of all.
But, my already over-burdened spirit, argues, I already am pouring out too much of my life. I’m tired, I’m old, and I’ve worked hard for most of my life. In fact, I’m still working for pay even though I officially “retired” more than two years ago. Don’t I deserve to take things easy sometimes? Does Jesus really expect me to keep on drinking the cup of anguish and pain that he drank on the night that he gave himself up? Do I really need to follow him to martyrdom in a baptism of blood? Do I have to keep on working hard, doing what I don’t want to do, until the day that my body simply gives up? Is that what commitment to follow Jesus really means?
I don’t think so. In fact, I think that, at least for me, the insidious tendency to commit to too much is not a matter of call, but rather a desire for praise and power. Volunteering to preach on Recommitment Sunday had become for me somehow akin to sitting on the right hand of Jesus. After all, as John pointed out two weeks ago, preaching is one of the places in Seekers where some of us hope to be admired for—as he put it—our spiritual bling. And I can get pretty proud of the spiritual baubles I imagine that I’ve acquired.
But those baubles can get very heavy. When I looked at the October preaching calendar, I already knew that my life would be very full for all of Recommitment season. I had already added leading Silent Retreat in late September to my regular duties as moderator for both Time and Space and Celebration Circle mission groups. In addition, I have been teaching a six-week online course for the Doctor of Ministry program at Wesley Theological Seminary, coaching students as they wrote their proposals for their final projects and thesis papers, and that just wrapped up on Friday. Meanwhile, there has been a flurry of emails and meetings regarding the program in which I have agreed to serve as liaison between the seminary here in DC and its partner in Cambridge, England for the next couple of years. So, I already had more than enough to keep me busy, and this past week has been particularly over-full with zooms and deadlines.
Too often, when I say yes to more than is good for me, it is not really that God is calling me to do too much, but rather that I am lured by the illusion that I will gain praise and power by doing more than is really mine to do. Instead, too often, the result is exhaustion and resentment.
When Jesus reminds his followers that the realm of God is not like the regular world in which the people in charge get to tell everyone else what to do, but rather a community where everyone is the servant of everyone else, he is not calling some to do everything and others to just coast. Rather, he is saying that when we trust that everyone will do their share, everyone’s burden is light.
And this, I think, is the true secret of our tradition of commitment here at Seekers. When we commit to living out our faith in this community, we are committing to the practice of shared leadership, to acknowledging the authority of each mission group at the point of their call, to an ethos of all crew and no passengers, to a way of life in which no one lords it over anyone else, and all have a say in who we are becoming. In Seekers, our annual commitment is an opportunity to consider whether we want to continue to practice living together in the upside-down realm of God, however imperfect our practice might be.
As many of you probably recall, every year for as long as I can remember, Celebration Circle has devised some simple ritual to go along with all the words of Recommitment. The first year we were in our building on Carroll Street, we passed around a basket of keys as a symbol of our common ownership and belonging. Another year, we tossed around balls of yarn, filling the sanctuary with a tangled web that made visible our intertwined connections to one another. Last year, we asked you all to send us a picture so we could make a collage containing our various images of the Mind of God.
This year, we have a much simpler idea. We’ve already asked everyone who is committing for the first time or committing again to another year of life in this community to send your names to Brenda so that you can be recorded in the book of our life together. And, of course, we’ve spoken the words, even though we couldn’t really hear all our voices. I do hope that all of you have made that commitment this morning, because I love you all and it would hurt to lose any of you. So the thing that remains is for each one of you to write the words “I commit” in the chat, so that we can all see all our names as we celebrate this special day.
Meanwhile, in front of all of you, I’ll make a new commitment: next year, I won’t preach Recommitment Sunday, so someone else can have a chance. Thank God we are all in this together. Amen.