“The Roots of Righteousness”
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning, Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
26 November 2023
This section of scripture is a favorite among us UCC types and for other mainline Protestants who practice an engaged form of spirituality. And even among UCC congregations, I think that this congregation has a unique charism or gift in putting our faith into action.
I could list any number of ways we together have gone about the business of feeding, clothing, sheltering people. The Homelessness Prevention Initiative, now part of Neighbor-to-Neighbor, had its beginnings at Plymouth when Sister Mary Alice Murphy approached us 20 years ago with the idea. We’ve built interfaith bridges and publicly advocated for those Jesus called “the least of these, who are members of my family.” What is even more important in the long run is the ways we are trying to affect social change so that charity isn’t needed.
And there is a long, long way to go. In the meantime, we wind up doing both things: providing a hand up and also trying to change systems of oppression and injustice. Someone asked recently why we are sending money to the Our Church’s Wider Mission, which is the way we fund not only the conference and national setting of the United Church of Christ, but also where we fund international outreach and mission. From what I understood, the person asking the question suggested that we should be taking care of our own local community, rather than people whom we will never see, let alone meet.
As a people who worship an invisible God, I think we should understand that seeing with our eyes isn’t everything. Just because you don’t SEE it happening doesn’t mean that it ISN’T happening. Globalization and technology move us beyond borders and boundaries. If you don’t have kids and you earn $60,000 a year, your income is in the top one percent globally. So, even if you don’t see kids at a preschool in Ethiopia or a girls’ school in Angola or a primary school in East Jerusalem, they are there and being supported by this congregation. Access to education changes lives and it changes systems. “Blessed are they who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
Part of what I want to say this morning is “thank you.” The people who comprise this congregation have big hearts for mission and outreach. And much of what we do as a congregation doesn’t show up the ledger sheet of our budget, whether it is in the form of Share the Plate, the Mission Marketplace, preventing homelessness, or giving to a Special Offering of the UCC.
The reading from Matthew’s gospel has an eschatological tone, which is a highfalutin theological term that relates to final things at the end of the age. Whenever you hear Matthew talk about “the Son of Man,” it denotes a piece of Jesus’ character related to the final chapter of human existence, the end of the age.
If you believe in the Last Judgment or Hell, this passage might be motivating for you to act in a moral way in this life so that you will be rewarded in the next. Yet, I don’t see God or Jesus as a divine accountant, putting our deeds on one side of some “Eternal Ledger” or another, and allowing those who end life in the black to enter eternal life (they would be the sheep) and those in the red to be consigned to eternal torment (they would be the goats). If you interpret this piece of scripture more literally, that’s fine. As a pastor, I prefer not to use fear as a motivator to encourage leading a moral life.
Orthopraxis is the twin sister of orthodoxy. You know that orthodoxy means holding the right opinion. And we don’t insist on uniformity of belief as a test of faithfulness in this congregation. Orthopraxis means right practice, especially in terms of religious faith. Depending on your religious tradition, orthopraxis might mean lighting candles at dinner on Friday evening and observing the sabbath on Saturday. Or it might mean making a pilgrimage to Mecca and abstaining from pork and alcohol. Or it might mean giving the hungry something to eat or the thirsty something to drink or the naked something to wear or visiting the sick or imprisoned or welcoming the stranger. I think we do have a fairly high bar of orthopraxis in our congregation around social justice issues. My only concern with that is that we don’t fall into the trap of thinking that our good works are all there is to leading a faithful life. We can get rather proud of taking action, and we sometimes set up an impossible standard of trying to save everyone everywhere.
So, for the sake of argument, let’s say that you AREN’T going to be sent to hell in a handbasket because you have not been charitable in your actions. WHY are you engaging in those behaviors? If you don’t fear eternal punishment, why bother to meet the needs of your neighbor around the world or on your doorstep? Stop for a minute. Ask yourself WHY you are doing things like feeding, welcoming, visiting? Is it just because we are “good people” and that’s how “good people” behave? Is it because our politics drive us in the direction of ensuring the needs of the “least of these?”
WHY are you doing something that is costly to you personally?
Part of the reason I’m posing this question is because I have learned so much from people in this congregation about what it means to live a faithful life. This is a really small example, but a long time ago, maybe 18 years ago, I heard one of our members say that they parked further away from the door of the supermarket not so they would get in a few more steps to reach their 10,000-step goal, but because someone else might need a space closer to the door. WHY do people do such things that are inherently at odds with their self-interest? That’s countercultural.
Here’s another example. A couple in our congregation retired and joined the Peace Corps, which is a cool thing in and of itself, and I was surprised that every year they were abroad, they still pledged their financial support of this congregation, even though they weren’t physical present to benefit from their membership. WHY did they do that? WHY were they acting in such a way that it diminished their financial self-interest? That’s countercultural.
Here’s a third example. Last year, a young Palestinian man turned up on our doorstep needing help…with finding a home, with graduate enrollment at CSU, with his visa status, and more. The very first thing that happened when he walked into our doors on a Sunday morning is that Brooklyn and Mike McBride made him a nice, hot caffe latte, sat him down, and sought out Jane Anne to help. He had already been to the Islamic Center and four other Christian churches seeking help but was turned away. This being Plymouth, we found someone who has worked with international students at CSU, another who knew the social services offered in our community, and later a physician who provided immediate care and helped him navigate the US healthcare system. And they built bonds of friendship and relationship that are still intact. Later his wife and son joined him from Jordan, and as you heard last Sunday, Darwish and Aseel have a new daughter named Ayla.
WHY are these Plymouth people doing these things? I also want to ask you to pose this question for yourself. I can’t answer that for you…that’s your job, and I hope you will grapple with it!
I can answer it for myself. Part of my sense of faith and my orthopraxis is to try and follow the way of Jesus as best I can, even when I fail at it. To try and let the Holy Spirit guide me and have her way with me. To trust in the guidance of Jesus and to know that on a deeply physical and spiritual level that his way is the path toward fullness of life not just for me, but for others, too.
I try not to do this – to engage orthopraxis – in a legalistic way. And I try not to judge others who may have a different way of expressing their faith than I do. My best guess in life is that if I know what was motivating Jesus – his WHY – I can use that to help motivate me, too.
Marcus Borg claimed that Jesus overturned the systematized and ritualized purity practice of ancient Israel (which was a form of orthopraxis) and replaced it with a new value: compassion. Compassion is a form of deeply shared feeling and sympathy. It can be self-sacrificial. Compassion sometimes comes at the expense of our own narrow visions of purity, orthodoxy, and orthopraxis.
Following Jesus is not always easy or comfortable, but it is the thing that continues to give my life meaning and purpose. I sense that the God that lures us toward wholeness and compassion also draws us toward unity and lovingkindness. WHY follow that path? Because the other trails don’t seem to lead toward God’s realm.
What is your WHY? I see so many things you do; why are you compelled to act with compassion? WHY might it have been important to your parents or someone you admired as a young person? In considering why you act the way you do, may you be drawn even closer to the living God whom we worship, and in whose realm we live and work.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning, Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
19 November 2023
There is a particular small book that I have bought and given to more people than any other. And it seems to catch the soul of some people. It’s a book called To Bless the Space between Us, and it’s a book of blessings by the late Irish priest and philosopher, John O’Donohue. One person heard me use one of the blessings contained in this book at a graveside service and was so touched by it that he had it engraved on the stone at the entrance to our memorial garden.
Here is what O’Donohue writes about blessing as an act: “In the parched deserts of postmodernity a blessing can be like the discovery of a fresh well. It would be lovely if we could rediscover our power to bless one another. I believe each of us can bless. When a blessing in invoked, it changes the atmosphere. Some of the plenitude flows into our hearts from the invisible neighborhood of loving kindness. In the light and reverence of a blessing, a person or situation becomes illuminated in a completely new way.”
And so today, you have heard Jesus open the Sermon on the Mount with a cycle of blessings! Jesus “changes the atmosphere,” allows “light and reverence” to stream into the souls of his hearers, resulting in spiritual illumination. And this passage has continued to illuminate the followers of Jesus for the ensuing 2,000 years. In fact, many Christians consider the Beatitudes (or Blessings) as the very heart of the gospel, rendering what living life as a Christian entails.
I read a funny-tragic blurb from NPR a few days back. Russell Moore, and Evangelical leader, reports that “Multiple pastors tell me, essentially, the same story about quoting Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount – having someone come up after to say, ‘Where did you get those liberal talking points?’ … And what is alarming to me is that in most of these scenarios, when the pastor would say, ‘I’m literally quoting Jesus Christ,’ the response would be, ‘Yes, but that doesn’t work anymore. That’s weak.’”
Sometimes (perhaps even often) Jesus’ message tends to clash with some of what Americans have come to believe as “gospel truth.” And it isn’t just Christian Nationalists, it’s us, too. The Beatitudes are blessing the weaklings, the underdogs, the losers. That is who Jesus blesses! And it is probably who we should include as we bless others. And it is reassuring to know that when we find ourselves depressed, anxious, running on empty, that Jesus blesses us, too.
It is hard in our day just to be. Just to exist. Just to find moments of inner peace. Mass shootings and violent responses to anyone who looks like the “other” are becoming de rigueur in the media. There is so much noise from the 24-hour news cycle, social media, the conflict-inducing voices on Fox News and MSNBC. American political discourse today is characterized by conflict that generates copious amounts of heat and almost no light.
I was meeting with my therapist a few weeks ago, and she commented that “Anger is the new American drug of choice.” Think about that for a moment. Think how our culture has changed since before the pandemic. Think how you yourself have changed since before the pandemic. “Anger is the new American drug of choice.”
Of course, anger doesn’t stop at our borders. The rise of neo-fascism at home and abroad has been clear for the last five years. And the explosive violence in Israel and Gaza is polarizing and hate-inducing far beyond the Middle East.
Maybe the whole world needs a time out. But since that would be difficult to accomplish, I’m going to invite you into a brief moment of respite. I’ll read you my favorite blessing from John O’Donohue, and it contains an unfamiliar Irish word, currach, which is a small skin and wood-frame boat. I invite your close your eyes, relax you shoulder and neck muscles, feel the weight of your body in your seat and just breathe.
On the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble,
may the clay dance
to balance you....
Read poem here. 
Blessing can be soul-restoring. I hope that you have a sense of that right now. And know that you can come back to that place of quietness and contemplation whenever you need to.
As I was thinking about this sermon, I was rolling around the idea that we need a few new Beatitudes for the times we live in and the challenges we face today. I came up with a long list, but here are three blessings for our day.
1) Blessed are you when you refuse to use violence as a means of addressing another’s violence.
Gandhi said that “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.” And we can see where the Israeli-Gaza war is leading. Last week New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote about the myths that fuel the war: “The first myth is that in the conflict in the Middle East there is right on one side and wrong on the other (even if people disagree about which is which).
“Life isn’t that neat. The tragedy of the Middle East is that this is a clash of right versus right. That does not excuse Hamas’s massacre and savagery or Israel’s leveling of entire neighborhoods in Gaza, but underlying the conflict are certain legitimate aspirations that deserve to be fulfilled.”
Nonviolence on the macro scale can also be used on a personal level. When we disagree with someone, we can discuss things in a calm, adult manner that doesn’t demonize anyone. We don’t have to be oppositional, passive-aggressive, or engage in name-calling. We can speak the truth in love.
A second beatitude: Blessed are you when leave self-interest behind in order to serve others and build community.
We don’t live in a vacuum; we live in a society. This comes as news to many Americans because we are raised to be self-reliant, self-assured, and self-centered. Our culture is diminished by lack of civic engagement and participation, by our unwillingness to look at the good of the whole, rather than our narrow self-interest. “No man is an island, Entire of itself, Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” John Donne wrote that in 1624, and we visualized it anew when astronauts took a photo of earth from space, and we saw the reality that we all share this small, blue marble.
We are all in this together. Thinking more of “we” and less of “me” is a blessing we each can live by.
A third beatitude: Blessed are you when you build bridges instead of erecting walls.
This metaphor has become too close to literal truth on the southern border of the United States. If we say “build a wall” it may be on the border or it may be in a gated community or it may be a way of excluding those who are somehow different than you are. Interpersonally, stonewalling is a way of keeping progress from happening by cutting off improvement and communication.
People who are more interested in finding solutions than harboring resentments build bridges, not walls. They engage with others in order to advance a solution, rather than simply withholding forward movement. Maybe you’ve seen that happen in a personal or a working relationship. It is poisonous to a culture and to the people who form it.
Those are my three Beatitudes, and I offer them to you as a blessing. As you receive communion [share the offering] I invite you to think about what Beatitudes you might offer. What blessing do you have to offer the world?
 “Beannacht” in To Bless the Space between Us, (NY: Convergent, 2008) p. 10
 Nicholas Kristof, “What We Get Wrong about Israel and Gaza,” NY Times, Nov. 25, 2023.
Revs. Erin Gilmore and Thandiwe Dale-Ferguson engage in a dialogue reflection on Acts 16:13-15 at the installation of the Rev. Dr. Marta Fioriti as Plymouth's Associate Minister.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC, Fort Collins, Colorado
29 October 2023
A story in today’s Washington Post caught my eye on this Reformation Sunday. It details the recent Synod of the Roman Catholic Church, which for the first time included women and lay delegates as voting members. Issues like the possibility of blessing unions (not marriage) of same-sex Catholic couples and possibly having women serve as deacons were at least talked about. In criticizing more progressive German clergy who are already blessing same-sex unions, one Polish archbishop said that they were advocating reforms that “draw profusely from Protestant theology and the language of modern politics.” As we weigh what our sisters and brothers struggled with during this Synod, it’s a good time for us, too, to be considering what it means to be church. It is important for us as a congregation to be aware of what sort of new reformation may be upon us, even today.
When most of us think of the Reformation, we think of the Augustinian priest Martin Luther in 1517 nailing his 95 theses on the door of the church in Wittenburg, stating his objections to abuses of power by the church in Rome. And it was a momentous step.
Do you think Luther knew what he was doing? Do you think he thought it would cause a schism in the western church? Did he know that it would spark a Counter-reformation in the Roman Catholic Church? Do you think he knew that it would result in the many wars of religion in Europe that would claim millions of lives and extend for nearly 200 years? I suspect that he did not. He certainly didn’t anticipate that the 1517 Reformation would spawn further reformations across Europe, with Calvinists, Anabaptists, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Unitarians, and others.
The Reformation was not – is not – monolithic. It happened in different ways in different places and in different times. And it is difficult to overemphasize the critical importance of it as a hinge in European history. It essentially put the final nail in the coffin of the Late Middle Ages and ushered in the Early Modern period.
Nothing in the church would ever be the same…except the things that are. You probably know some shifts in Protestant faith that come straight from Luther: two sacraments (baptism and communion) instead of seven. A different way of looking at communion: Transubstantiation (meaning that the communion elements literally became the body and blood of Christ) was disavowed. The reliance on scripture as wholly adequate source of authority, rather than papal pronouncement. Married clergy. Direct access to God, rather than needing the intermediary of a priest. And salvation that is a gift of grace based on faith alone, rather than relying on good works as a means of trying to earn merit.
Luther paraphrased the psalm we heard this morning, such that “God is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in times of trouble” became “a might fortress is our God.”
This psalm was important to the Reformers, as it became more obvious that their heterodox views meant not just risking their own lives but that they could be used to incite violence and civil war.
Hear these words of the psalmist as you think of the war in Israel and Gaza:
“He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;
he burns the shields with fire.
‘Be still, and know that I am God!
I am exalted among the nations,
I am exalted in the earth.’
The LORD of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.”
It is not the intention of our God or Jesus to use violence, but to secure peace, to break weapons, to call us to be still.
One of the questions that someone in the congregation asked during the Instant Sermon over the summer concerned what the church of the future would look like. And since none of us received that crystal ball we were hoping for, the best we can do is rely of God’s grace and guidance going forward.
Some things that we Protestants do go right back past 1517. Worship is still the central mission of every church, though of course it has morphed over time. We still baptize infants (though other Protestants don’t) and we celebrate communion. I suspect that the church of the future will continue to do those things, as well as to have potluck suppers.
One of the great ideas from our tradition is that we are not only Reformed, but reforming. It rests on a Latin phrase, Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda est. The church is reformed and is always reforming.
Reformed and reforming. You do know what that implies, don’t you? It’s the C-word…change! Most of us think that change is fine and necessary, but when asked if WE want to change, it’s a different story.
I want to acknowledge that change is incredibly difficult, especially when everything in your life seems to be changing and it can be embittering when the one thing you think is really stable – your church – starts to change.
One of the things you may not be fully aware of is how dramatically the pandemic accelerated change in American Christianity. Because we invested in great livestreaming capability, a sizable portion of our congregation is worshiping from home. Last Sunday, more that 70 screens were viewed during our two services, so it’s likely that we had about 95 worshipers who aren’t physically in the sanctuary. (We’re glad you’re in the virtual balcony, but we are still adjusting to so many of our folks being online and not in the pews.) We’ve seen the closure of the American Baptist Church and Abyssinian Christian Church in Fort Collins. Our own denomination has seen a 50% membership decline since the 1980s. Fewer people are entering seminary to prepare for parish ministry, because there are fewer congregations who can afford even one full-time clergyperson. This year, 12 people comprised the incoming Master of Divinity class at Iliff. When I started at Iliff in 1996, the incoming class was 60: five times as large.
One of my favorite Roman Catholic writers, Fr. Richard Rohr, reflects, “In North America and much of Europe, we are witnessing a dramatic increase in ‘nones,’ people who don’t identify with a particular faith tradition. While I ache for those who have been wounded by religion and no longer feel at home in church, the dissatisfaction within Christianity has sparked some necessary and healthy changes. Episcopal Bishop Mark Dyer…aptly called these recurring periods of upheaval giant ‘rummage sales’ in which the church rids itself of what is no longer needed and rediscovers treasures it had forgotten…. This is a difficult and frightening task, which is why we only seem to do it every 500 years or so! If we look at church history, we can see the pattern.”
What Rohr is referring to is the great rummage sale of the Reformation in 1517, the great schism between the eastern and western branches of Christianity in 1054, and the rise of monasticism in the sixth century. And we’re in the midst of another 500-year rummage sale.
So, today we find the church in Europe and North America in a stage of decline, ready for reformation. The funny thing about reformations is that nobody knows exactly where they will lead.
Sometimes in the UCC, we seem to think that if we just work harder, if we just do one more social justice project, if we just expand our program offerings, it will turn things around. And to be honest, we’ve been pretty good at holding back the flood here at Plymouth. But even if, like Hans Brinker, we keep our finger in the dyke to hold back the torrent, the dam isn’t going to hold forever. American Christianity, mainline Protestantism, the UCC, and even Plymouth will look very different in 20 years, even if none of us knows quite how.
The key to successful reformation is to get rid of the bathwater and have the wisdom to hold fast to the baby and not throw her out, too. The 1517 Reformation threw out plenty of bathwater, and there was some baby that got tossed out as well, and we’ve re-adopted some of those things. For instance, when I was growing up in a New England Congregational church, the only vestments clergy wore were academic robes, never a stole around their shoulders and certainly not a cassock alb, like I’m wearing right now. We adopted those gradually as an acknowledgement of our ecumenism. I never saw liturgical colors growing up. Today, I see gifts in monasticism. And I am deeply informed by mysticism and contemplative Christian spirituality, which also went by the wayside. Thankfully, we’ve retrieved some of that tradition.
I’m not aware of anyone who can tell just what the future of Christianity is going to look like. That can be scary, because we know it will be different, yet we’re not quite sure how. Part of our task in the coming years is to identify the baby and preserve it carefully, even as we drain the bathwater and let it go. It’s a matter both of embracing change while also conserving the best pieces of our tradition that are central to who we are as Christians.
Always reforming means that we have to embrace change and ride the wave. It also means that we need to spend time doing deep, thoughtful discernment with God about where we are being led to change and why. I pray that we have the grace to listen to the God who is still speaking and calling us to be the church.
May it be so. Amen.
“Generosity Is Serious Business”
2 Corinthians 9.6-8
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning, Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
15 October 2023
Most of you are probably unaware that your senior minister is a closet Parrothead, who mourned the death of Jimmy Buffett early last month. Now, you may ask yourself why I’m opening a hard-hitting, serious stewardship sermon talking about the singer best known for “Margaritaville.” (I do like a good margarita, but that isn’t the reason I’m talking about Jimmy Buffett this morning.) Buffett was an amazing storyteller, and his songs were laced with wisdom and humor that sometimes go deeper than you might assume. One of his songs, “Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes,” is among my favorites, and it contains this line that I think we should adopt as the church in the 21st century: “Changes in latitudes, changes in attitudes, nothing remains quite the same. With all of our running and all of our cunning, if we couldn’t laugh, we would all go insane.”
Even when things seem deadly serious, if we couldn’t laugh we WOULD all go insane. Think about it…every church in this nation has gone through a rapid free-fall during the pandemic and its aftermath. Those were very difficult years at Plymouth for a variety of reasons, and we’re starting to pull out of it into a new normal. It’s easy to sit there and wring our hands, but that would surely drive us toward insanity, so you have to laugh! That’s a lesson I learned going through cancer treatment…if you can’t laugh about it, your outlook will eat you up.
Something else you may not know about me is that I have a shadowy past in university development, which is a euphemism for fundraising. In my 20s, I worked on building Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford and before that I was director of development communications at UC Santa Barbara. In fact, that is something I share with one of our members, Julie Karbula, who finished her career in development at UCSB. And she and I can tell you, generosity is serious business. Deadly serious business. But if you can’t laugh about it, you’ll be on your way toward insanity.
What’s so funny about stewardship? Isn’t it kind of a crazy concept that a bunch of people get together to worship an invisible deity and support one another and try to make a difference in the world…and that we try to fund it based on the faith of our members? Imagine what would happen if we had a high-profile consultant from Bain or McKinsey do a feasibility study on the church. (“No, I’m sorry, Paul, our study shows clearly that this idea of a church is economically untenable. The return on investment is just not predictable enough to warrant deep investment. You should probably stick with your tent-making business.”)
The apostle Paul didn’t have a lot of business sense, did he? Here he is working with a bunch of Greek-speaking folks trying to raise money for Jewish Christians in Jerusalem. That’s not an easy sell. Can you imagine the side conversations among those early Greek-speaking Christians? (“Why are we giving our hard-earned money for a bunch of people in Jerusalem we don’t even know?” “Are you sure that Paul is going to do what he says with our money? I’m not sure we can trust him.” “We didn’t get to vote about where the money is going!” “That Paul…all he ever talks about is money!”) The joke is on us because that squirrely business plan worked…with a little help from the Holy Spirit. The church is 2,000 years old, and I can’t think of any corporation or dynasty or empire that has persisted so long.
And what about this notion that “God loves a cheerful giver?” That is serious business! Does that mean that God doesn’t love a grumpy giver? Of course not! God loves all of us without exception and without condition. But it’s a heck of a lot more rewarding to give cheerfully than dolefully. It is far more meaningful to derive a sense of joy in your giving rather than to give grudgingly or resentfully. (But if you REALLY want to pledge grudgingly or resentfully, we’ll still accept your pledge card next Sunday.)
Mother Theresa said that we should give until it hurts. I like to think she meant that it hurts in a good way, like when your physical terrorist, I mean physical therapist, is grinding away on your inflamed muscles and tendons. Oh, it hurts so good!
But seriously, folks, I prefer to give until it feels good. I literally do this, and I encourage you to do the same if you are confused about how much to pledge for 2024. Look at yourself in the mirror and say out loud what you are planning to pledge. If you say $4,000 and no smile comes to your face, try saying $5,000 and keep on going until you see your dour New England Congregationalist scowl turn into a smile. And not just a humorous smile, but one that reflects a deeper sense of joy…one that evokes a grateful breath, a big smile, and the word, “Yes!”
Our Stewardship Board this year made a specific request in their letter to you this year, and it is because we need a little more help from everyone in order to keep our congregation vital and sustainable. And last Sunday, we had a bulletin insert with a little frog on it asking you to consider striving toward pledging five percent of your income. Those are suggestions, not demands or rigid rules.
I have a hunch that for many of us, giving does feel good. It feels rewarding, knowing that you are able to put your money where your faith is, and that it makes a difference not just to those who benefit from our mission and ministry, but to you, the giver. That’s another laughable idea: that giving away your hard-earned cash makes you feel good. In fact, giving a profound spiritual discipline that releases a sense of joy in you, the giver.
Generosity is a key Christian value, because it means sharing the experience of supporting God’s mission and ministry on earth. It feels good to emulate the role of God the giver of every good gift. I’m sure you’ve had the experience of feeling your heart swell as you gave just the right gift to a child or you mom or dad or a grandchild or spouse. (Can you create an image of giving such a gift in your mind’s eye right now?)
A study by psychologists at Northwestern and the University of Chicago (more serious business!) found that, “If you want to sustain happiness over time, past research tells us that we need to take a break from what we’re currently consuming and experience something new. Our research reveals that …[giving] may matter more than assumed: Repeated giving, even in identical ways to identical others, may continue to feel relatively fresh and relatively pleasurable the more that we do it.” My assessment of their conclusion can be summed up in one word: DUH! Of course giving results in joy! But now we have evidence-based studies to confirm common sense.
Has it ever occurred to you that the reason God loves a cheerful giver is that She wants YOU to experience the joy of giving? Jesus says in John’s Gospel, “I came so that you might have life and have it in abundance.”
As Ebenezer Scrooge learned, the only way we turn abundance into JOY is by sharing it.
Paul offers more common sense: “The one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.” I have seen this happen at Plymouth and in my own life. It may feel scary to go out on a limb and sow bountifully. It was really scary to switch careers when I was in my 30s…but it resulted in a bounty of joy. I see the most generous of people here at Plymouth, and I don’t see their faces pinched in worry. I see them offering more of themselves in all kinds of ways, and I see joy written on their faces.
May you be joyful knowing that you are graced by God’s abundance. May you find the ability to laugh at circumstances, at deep generosity, and even at yourself. May you be one of those who has the joy of giving written on your heart…and across your face, even if you aren’t wearing a red nose.
© 2023 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact hal at plymouthucc.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
“The Joy of Serving”
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning
Plymouth Congregational UCC, Fort Collins, Colorado
October 8, 2023
Have you ever wanted to have a time machine that would let you travel across the millennia? I’m intrigued by this passage for a number of reasons, the first of which is that it comes from very early in the Christian era. The Letter to the Church in Philippi is earlier than any of the canonical gospels, having been written about 20 years after Jesus’ death. Even without a time machine, this text allows us to glimpse into what was happening in the early church before it was burdened by the powerful hand of those who insisted upon uniformity and what they considered orthodox.
It’s also interesting because this piece of text is actually the earliest known hymn in the Christian tradition, and it contains pieces of the early wisdom tradition of Jesus that seemed as countercultural then as they do now. Paul writes of joy not in the things in the ancient world that one would hope for: honor, status, wealth. In the Roman world it was better to be an influential patron that anyone who had to rely on patronage for survival, whether you were a client trying to do business, a landless peasant, or an enslaved part of the household. This hymn rejects that status idea entirely.
Rather, Paul speaks of complete joy consisting in self-giving love, compassion, empathy, lacking selfish ambition, seeing ourselves in humility, looking after the common good instead of self-interest.
What Paul asks of the church in Philippi is what he invites us into today, namely getting a brain transplant. Now, before you start thinking of Dr. Frankenstein (or Boris Karloff or Mel Brooks) placing the brain of a criminal inside the monster, let me rephrase that. Paul is inviting us to have a MIND transplant, letting go of the old, socially normative way of thinking and instead embracing a new way of encountering the world. “Let the same mind be in you that was in Jesus Christ,” he writes.
This is the type of transformation that we refer to in the middle of our mission statement’s actions of inviting, transforming, and sending. It’s a big shift in our attitude about what is important in life. It’s about letting go of what our society (and Roman society) values most: status, wealth, worldly power, ego. There are plenty of examples of that in our culture; you don’t have to be Elon Musk to buy into it, because on some level it affects us all.
It isn’t a very easy sell to ask people to make that attitudinal shift. One of the great hymns of the Reformation asks us to “let goods and kindred go…this mortal life also.” I wonder if that is where many of us have attachments that keep us from letting go. It isn’t that goods and kindred and life are bad — not at all — but rather the sense of physical security they offer is actually pretty tenuous. Physical possessions and wealth may give us comfort, but they can disappear overnight in a fire or an economic downturn. Many of us have experienced the loss of our kindred through death or the rupture of a relationship. And while many of us cling to this life and aim to be healthy, none of us makes it out alive.
Sometimes, we need to let some attachments go in order to make space for something else to move in. Here is some trivia for you to share with a friend: when lobsters grow, they molt or shed their shell when their bodies need space. Here’s the weird part: in their first five to seven years of life, they do this process about 25 times. Imagine that: a juvenile lobster is feeling a bit crowded in its shell, so it sloughs it off, giving it room to grow inside a new shell that it generates. Do distractions or attachments ever make your shell feel too tight?
We all have attachments that we need to release, attitudes that may have served us well in the past, but perhaps have been outgrown. Or even cultural assumptions that we buy into without considering them in light of our faith. Think for a minute: what are some of the assumptions or attitudes that you cling to and need to let go of?
Our culture tells us that you have to be young, intelligent, ambitious, “successful.” What does your faith say to that?
Our culture prefers that you are straight, cisgender, white, and male. What does your faith say about that?
Our culture values those who are wealthy, powerful, influential. What does your faith value?
Paul writes that Jesus “emptied himself,” releasing all attachments. The act of self-emptying is called kenosis in Greek, and it is the opposite of clinging to our attachments. Richard Rohr calls this the touchstone of all Jesus’ teaching: “Let go! Don’t cling! Don’t hoard! Don’t assert your importance! Don’t fret.”
Does that sound appealing to you? To me, releasing those things sounds like being unencumbered, climbing out of a too-tight shell, and in a real sense freed from the cultural expectations that keep so many of us bound. In order to be free, we also need to let go of some of the distractions that fill in our empty spaces: worry, TV, and social media.
Once we have made some space in our minds, hearts, and attitudes, it allows the movement of the Spirit to flow through us, among us, without so many blockages. It isn’t that we’re ever totally successful in the letting go, but even releasing some of those attachments gives us room to breathe.
Kenosis, letting go, allows us to see things differently. It prepares us to hear the gospel message with new ears. It makes room in our hearts to experience joy in a new way, having put on the mind of Christ. Then we can “look not to our own interests, but to the interest of others.”
A couple of things that I love about the image and theme for our pledge campaign are the idea of JOY in giving, not obligatory giving. If we’ve released some attachments, it frees us up for joy. The other piece I love is the heart image. We can experience happiness in our minds, but joy is an emotion we experience with the heart, body, and soul as well. So, even if we’ve had a successful brain transplant, release brings joy to the other parts of our being as individuals and as a congregation.
I had planned to speak today more about servant leadership, modeling our lives after Jesus. And we have room on our boards for servant leaders. I know how many of us feel the pinch of time, of work, of family, of obligation. And part of letting go is entering the freedom of release from distraction, so that we have space to consider important ministry (which comes from the Latin word for servant).
May we see ourselves with the same perspective that God sees us. May we have spaciousness within our souls to make room for following Jesus. May we have freedom to do the work of the Holy Spirit. And in all of it, may we find true joy.
© 2023 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
 Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation for December 18, 2018.