The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
June 17, 2018
I’ve been wondering…what is it that has kept people coming to church for the past 2,000 years? What is it that we’ve got that other groups and organizations don’t have? Let’s face it, the ACLU does social justice better than we do. The federal government supplies more housing that we can ever hope to. Laudamus and the Larimer Chorale are more polished than our choir…even though we share some of the same singers. CSU does a better job at young adult education than we do. And even though we love potlucks and Ice Cream Sunday, Austin’s and Walrus Ice Cream have superior offerings. And Snapchat is a lot better at reaching millions of teens with smartphones than we ever will be in youth group. The coffee is better at Starbucks than it is at our coffee hour. And you might hear more articulate people if you were to stay at home and watch CBS Sunday Morning than you’ll encounter here at Plymouth, even in this pulpit.So, maybe we should cash it in while we can.
If we sold our property for $9 million, that would mean that each member of the church would get about $12,500. If you read all of the studies about mainline decline and read the self-flagellating books and articles about how narrow-minded, bigoted, and anti-intellectual we Christians are you might want to cash in your chips and just become spiritual but not religious. Certainly, plenty of people have done just that.
And for our staff, we could be making a lot more money as lawyers, professors, or in the corporate world. And we’d get to have three-day weekends, wouldn’t be on call 24-7, and wouldn’t have to work on Christmas Eve or Easter.
So, what has kept people coming to church for 2,000 years? Is it just our social justice and music programs or coffee hour?
Here at Plymouth we DO act for social justice. And we are one of the most active venues for participative music each week. And we do have outstanding adult theological education. And we do have food free-for-alls that welcome you, whether you contribute or not. And we do instill a profound sense of morals and values in our children and youth. And you might actually gain some insights in hearing promptings from the pulpit or in a coffee hour dialogue. And to my colleagues, you get to do amazingly meaningful and fulfilling work.
But this still doesn’t answer my question: What has kept people coming to church for 2,000 years?
Back when the UCC entered a full-communion agreement with the ELCA Lutherans, a wise and bold Lutheran pastor speaking at the UCC General Synod offered these words of challenge to us: You need to remember that UCC doesn’t stand for United Church of Causes, it stands for United Church of Christ. She knew one of the pitfalls of our denomination: that we sometimes substitute working for social causes for being the body of Christ. To be sure, acting for social justice is an important component of the way many of us live out our tradition, but it is not an end in itself. What does it mean for us, the church, to be the body of Christ in the world? Paul writes, “Now, you (plural) are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” [1 Corinthians 12.27]
About a year and a half ago, I was sitting in a doctor’s office, and I heard the words that many of us dread: “You’ve got cancer.” What do you do with that news? Other than scaring the Dickens out of myself by reading way too much conflicting information on the internet, I’ll tell you what I did: I prayed. You see, there is nothing that the ACLU or the Larimer Chorale or CBS Sunday Morning or Snapchat could do to help me navigate the scary waters of cancer treatment. But, my faith – and by faith I mean a trusting relationship with God – my faith gave me the tools to walk through a very scary time. And unlike most other folks with cancer, I had to make my news very public with all of you, which was not comfortable or easy, but it was the right thing to do. That line in the unison prayer this morning struck me: “We pray not for smooth seas, but for a stout ship, a good compass, and a strong heart.” A solid, trusting relationship with God is a stout ship with a good compass, and it provides us a strong heart.
Every morning, during my prayer time, I started offering this as one of my prayers: “Circle me, God, keep wholeness within and cancer without.” And it is a prayer that I continue to offer for the members of our church who are living with cancer. You may not know I’m praying for you each day, but I am. “Circle us, God, keep wholeness within and cancer without.”
I was out having a beer with one of our members on February 1st this year, when my iPhone rang. I couldn’t understand Jane Anne’s voice through her tears; so my son, Chris, got on the phone and told me the news that strikes fear into the heart of every parent: that one of our sons, Colin, had died. And I raced home across town and held Jane Anne tight. I hope that none of you ever has to go through what we went through this year, but if you do, I hope that your faith in God sustains you. I didn’t know what else to do after we received this news, so I lit a candle and prayed. In the middle of the night, our doorbell rang, and a Fort Collins police officer appeared to make the official notification of Colin’s death. And then there was a discussion with the medical examiner and the funeral director and picking up Colin’s belongings from the coroner’s office. And we decided to be very frank and open with the congregation in telling you that the cause of death was suicide. That level of transparency was not obligatory…and God knows it wasn’t easy or comfortable. But it was the right thing to do. We were trying to embody healthy communication: that even when it’s hard, uncomfortable, jarring, difficult news, it is important to tell it straight, be honest, and be direct. That kind of open communication helps keep the body of Christ, the church, healthy. I can also tell you that the only way Jane Anne and I are standing here this morning is because of our faith in God and because of your faith and prayers pulling us along. In the week after his death, I had a very strong feeling come over me, a feeling that let me know that Colin was at peace. Our prayers together with your prayers and expressions of God’s love created a wave of faithful expression that kept us afloat…and they still keep us afloat!
What has kept people coming back to the church for 2,000 years?
Part of the answer is that when life gets very, very real…when you think the world is crumbling…faith in God will keep you going. And life WILL get real for each of us. We will get a pink slip at work. We will learn that our parents or spouses or (God forbid) children have died. We will hear the doctor utter the words of an unfavorable diagnosis. And eventually each one of us will die.
It may be in those moments when we most clearly rely on the strength of our faith in God, because no matter how intellectually astute or wealthy or young or accomplished or seemingly bulletproof we are…life gets real. And then there is nothing that the ACLU or the Larimer Chorale or CBS Sunday Morning can do to make you see that death is not the final word, that the sun will indeed rise tomorrow, that you are part of something bigger. Unlike the ACLU, Larimer Chorale, or CBS Sunday Morning, we comprise the body of Christ in the world.
That tiny, little mustard seed…that’s what the kingdom of God is like. Maybe the church is like that mustard seed, too. It may look tiny compared to other seeds, but when it takes root and gets going, it can be explosive. And it’s exciting to be a part of that…to dream of what God is calling us to become! And you know that Jesus also said that if your faith is the size of just a little mustard seed that your faith has the power to move mountains.
If you are like me, sometimes you may feel that your faith – your trust in God and Christ – is really tiny…that it may not be adequate or up to the job when life gets real. Faith is like a muscle in that it needs fuel and exercise in order to grow; it needs to be nurtured and used so that it will grow.
For those of us who are (or are trying to be) physically fit, how much time do you spend training each week? 3 hours? 5 hours? 7 hours? And for those of us who are trying to be spiritually fit, how much time do you spend exercising your faith? I’m doing a lot of swimming right now, and it occurred to me that spending 15 minutes praying each morning doesn’t compare favorably with the time I spend swimming. And if you need help with a spiritual practice or workout, please come and see me…I have ideas!
But you don’t need to be a spiritual Ironman. No, you just need faith like a mustard seed and to water it, give it air and light and soil. Maybe that’s part of why people keep coming back to church after 2,000 years: to nurture that wild, explosive seed.
So, let me ask you a personal question: Why are you here today, and what keeps you coming back?
In these uncertain times in our nation, it is easy to put our heads in our hands and admit defeat. Or to play small…or to opt out of controversy…or not to claim our inheritance as followers of Jesus and proclaimers of the kingdom. Our faith is not bound by time or space or even the span of a human life. It is eternal. And so our relationship with God supersedes our politics, our nationality, our race, our gender, our body. All these aspects of our personhood will cease when we die, but our faith will not.
The empire in Jesus’ day and in our own can take away our wealth, our livelihood, our rights, our land, our freedom, even our life. But one thing they can never take away is our faith – our relationship with God.
A wise Congregational/Unitarian minister, Ralph Waldo Emerson, once offered these words, and I want you to hold onto them, because life will get real for you. And you will need the force of your faith to see you through: “The task ahead of us is never as great as the power behind us.”
May it be so.
©2018 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.