“Trusting God in Changing Times” by Deborah Sokolove

The 4th Sunday in Lent

March 27, 2022

It is now the fourth Sunday in Lent, more than half way through this season that leads inexorably to the last meal that Jesus had with his disciples, his crucifixion at the hands of an occupying empire, and the improbable discovery of his resurrection three days later. This season is traditionally one of revisiting the founding stories of our faith, of learning again to trust God in every aspect of our lives.

And so, for the past three weeks the lectionary readings from the Hebrew scriptures have reviewed the experience of the Israelites as they escaped from slavery in Egypt and arrived in a land “flowing with milk and honey”; God’s covenant with Abram that his descendants would be more numerous than the stars and would possess all the land “from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates….”; and the haunting invitation to everyone who thirsts to “come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy … wine and milk without money and without price” as God makes clear that the covenant that is not really about land, but about relationship, about trusting God to love us, no matter what.

Today’s reading returns to the aftermath of the escape from Egypt with a pun about a place called Gilgal (the word means something like a wheel or a circle or something that rolls) where, it is written, “The Holy One said to Joshua, “Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.” The rolling away of the stone of disgrace meant there were big changes in store for the people, because “The manna ceased on the day they ate the produce of the land, and the Israelites no longer had manna; they ate the crops of the land of Canaan that year.” And, I suspect, even though the people had earlier rebelled against eating manna night and day, not trusting in the miraculous food that God had provided, now they were equally resistant to the idea of yet another change to their diet.

Meanwhile, the Gospels have reminded us about Jesus being tempted to trust the devil rather than God; his insistence on going to Jerusalem, even though he will probably be killed there; and his warning to the Pharisees that they needed to change their ways. Finally, in today’s reading, we have story about a wayward young person who ran away and then came back, trusting in forgiving love; another young person whose trust and love gave way to bitterness and resentment; and their parent’s unfailing commitment to love and trust them both.

Some of you have already read my initial response to that last story, if you get Inward/Outward in your email. For those who didn’t – or even if you did read it, but have forgotten – the punch line goes like this

If responsibility is really the ability to respond to whatever life offers, my dutiful joylessness is a prison that keeps me from responding to the gifts that are freely given to me in every moment.  Like those Pharisees whose accusations led to Jesus telling this story in the first place, I am so sure that I am doing the right thing that I waste the gift of God’s unconditional love.

As I have related in probably more than one sermon over the years, when I first came to Seekers in January 1990, I fell in love with the congregation and was baptized by Sonya on Palm Sunday of that year. While I had some concerns about the way some people in Seekers in those days talked about race, ethnicity, and various gender issues, I kept my reservations to myself as I learned the ways of this expression of the Body of Christ. Over time, I took classes in what was then called the School for Christian Living (and has now been renamed the School for Christian Growth, for reasons that I confess I still do not understand), learned some of the history and reasons that things were done in ways that at first had not made sense, and after some exploring in other groups, I found a home in the Celebration Circle mission group whose Call to energize and structure the worship of Seekers Church sang to me, and still does all these years later. A few months later, I joined Stewards as quickly as I could, and have been going to those monthly meetings ever since.

Now, thirty-two years after arriving, I am no longer a newcomer. While I still have never quite acquired the reverence for Gordon and the old Church of the Saviour that many of those who got here before me carry, I respect this heritage and it is clear that I have become part of the establishment. And, like the dutiful young person in the story of the Prodigal, I am generally comfortable with how we do things and more than a little resistant to change.

This last is less an old-timer thing and more a personality trait, I think. As I mentioned over lunch with some friends recently, when someone suggests that I do something I’ve never done or go somewhere I’ve never been, however innocuous, my first reaction is usually “no.” Then, when I have some time to think about it, I may warm up to a notion that I at first have rejected. In fact, I might even eventually enthusiastically endorse the new idea when talking with others. I guess consistency is not one of my virtues.

In any case, here at Seekers, there have been a lot of changes along the way, some of which I have resisted and some I have welcomed with open arms, or even instigated. Now, once again, we are facing some big changes, and we need to trust that, once again, God’s love will be big enough for us to love and trust one another—and trust God—through it all.

The first big movement towards change is already here. As the pandemic seems to be winding down—yes, I know about variant BA.2, but I’m not going to worry about it unless things get worse again—we have returned to hybrid worship. Right now, it seems like a lot of work for a very few people, as most Seekers are still worshiping from the comfort of their computers. I hope that greater numbers of Seekers will return to meeting in person over the next few weeks, and that the balance will soon tip from most people being online to most people gathering together in this room. While I appreciate seeing your faces online, I really miss being able to hear you and hug you in person. Meanwhile, of course, our faithful team of zoom hosters will keep making it possible for you to participate, even when you are unable to be physically present.

Another big change in Seekers is in the membership of the Servant Leadership Team. As you will recall, in January 2021, Joan stepped down from the SLT, citing her ongoing health problems. At that time, we did not look for someone else to take on her responsibilities. Instead, looking at the changing demographics of the congregation, the Stewards commissioned the Servant Leadership Working Group (SLWG) to take a look at our current structures and make some recommendations about how we might change some of the ways we organize ourselves. At the February Stewards meeting, the SLWG made a preliminary report, in March they presented their final recommendations, and, as I am sure you know, a meeting has been scheduled for 2pm today for a discussion.

I confess that while I initially struggled with some of the changes the SLWG recommends, crossing my arms across my chest defensively like the Prodigal’s dutiful brother refusing to come to the party, the more I think about some of those ideas, the more sense they make. I look forward to saying more about that and hearing what you think this afternoon.

While SLWG was doing its careful, thoughtful work, Brenda made it clear that she would be stepping down from SLT this summer, and the Stewards asked for a Servant Leader Call Team to conduct a search for new members of the Servant Leadership Team. The Call Team— as Amy, Anita, Joan, Peter and I have been naming ourselves—has been working diligently to craft a Call to SLT, taking into account the recommendations of SLWG, and plan to formally present it to Stewards at the April meeting next Sunday. As the chair of the Call Team, I repeat the invitation that I gave two weeks ago: Please begin praying and discerning whether you are called to become a member of the SLT, so that when the Call is sounded, you will be ready to answer it. I trust that God will speak to you about the leadership that Seekers needs in the coming months and years.

In ordinary times, I would have briefly returned to the story of the Prodigal and end with a few, encouraging words. But these are not ordinary times, and I cannot offer a sermon about trusting God together that does not acknowledge that the world around us is in the midst of multiple, critical dangers. A shooting war in Ukraine, an ongoing worldwide pandemic, ugly domestic political strife, looming ecological disaster, and more all vie for our attention. In the face of all that is going on, our organizational changes may seem like nothing more than rearranging the furniture or painting the walls of a single room while ignoring the crumbling foundations that signal imminent collapse of the entire building.

But what my life has taught me is that, even—or maybe even especially—in the face of great danger, it is often the little things that matter.

A lifetime ago, I was a young mother when several surrounding countries mounted a surprise attack on the small country where I was living. With a semi-secret munitions factory just up the road, and the sea just a few blocks away in another direction, our neighborhood was particularly vulnerable to weapons that might be launched from boats just offshore. A terse voice on the radio instructed everyone to tape all the windows to protect them from shattering, to close all the shutters and turn off the lights so that the attackers would not be able to see where we were. Night after night, when the air raid sirens wailed, I gathered my daughters, then aged 8 and 2, in a dark, windowless room. As they settled in with pillows and blankets, I would light a single candle, rock my newborn son, and sing softly or tell stories as we waited for the all-clear to sound. In the mornings, as we emerged into the bright October sunshine and waited in line at the local market for our rationed bread, eggs, milk, and vegetables, the other mothers and I would share what little knowledge we had of how the war was going and hope for news about our husbands at the front while the children played and laughed.

Then, as now, I had no ability to affect the outcome of war. What I could do was keep my children calm and as comfortable as possible, encourage the other young mothers and be encouraged by them, and trust God to help us all through the dark nights.

Then, as now, I leave it to others to offer wisdom and guidance about what should be done about all the great dangers and issues of the day, while I concentrate on our worship life together. It seems to me that we are not simply redecorating when we thoughtfully and respectfully consider new ways to organize ourselves and look for new leadership, even in a time of great peril. Rather, we are enabling Seekers to go on offering a haven for people in distress, to encourage one another, and to trust God to help us through the tough times, as we have always done.

Today’s Gospel story ends with the loving parent reassuring the older sibling, saying “you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours” while celebrating the return of younger one, “who was dead and has come to life; who was lost and has been found.” I like to think that, even though Jesus doesn’t say so, eventually the older one relented and went to the party, just as the younger one had repented and come home, and that the whole family was reunited in love and trust.

Maybe we who have been around Seekers for a long time, and we who have just arrived, are like those two young people, each wanting what we want, each thinking that we are right, each wanting to be loved and valued by the other, each equally beloved by the One in whom we live and have our being. Like the characters in the story, we need to learn to trust God together, even as the times keep changing. Then, as we become Christ to one another, together we can be Christ, trusting God together for the healing of the world. Amen.

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