The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
In last Thursday’s Washington Post, there was a smallish article in the national news section. It was not considered front-page news and didn’t even make it into the New York Times. Yet, I found the headline is shocking: “Nearly 8 million Americans have fallen into poverty since the summer” and the subhead reads, “Nation’s poverty rate has risen at the fastest pace ever this year after aid for the unemployed declined.” Now, I may be alone in finding this unacceptable…clearly Congress has not yet extended unemployment benefits set to expire after Christmas or sent stimulus checks to people who really need them. In the spirit of Dickens’s “Christmas Carol,” I hope that on this day they are visited by the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. Accepting a rapidly growing poverty rate is fundamentally a moral issue.
Something closer to home happened last week. I got an email from a clergy colleague here in Fort Collins, letting me know that the city and county were finally opening an isolation shelter for people experiencing homelessness and who have tested positive for Covid. There had been an outbreak at the temporary shelter on Blue Spruce Drive with 53 homeless folks and 8 staff members testing positive, so getting the isolation shelter in place was critical. Larimer County and the city, however, aren’t covering the cost of food for these people who are living in isolation. Instead, they are counting on a local nonprofit, Homeward Alliance, to raise between $30,000 and $60,000 to cover food costs. I’ve written to every member of city council, as well as to the county board of supervisors. While council members were concerned, the city manager’s office confirmed that Homeward Alliance will cover the food costs. I hope they are visited by the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. Our congregation, led by our teens, raised about $20,000 this month for homelessness prevention. We are doing our part, but we cannot do it alone.
If I was a bit jaded, I might be led to believe that many people in our country, especially political types, don’t care that much about the poor. Would I be wrong in that assumption? And yet, we certainly hear some politicians crow loudly about America being a Christian nation and the perceived threat to the free practice of Christian religion in this nation.
But shouldn’t Christians care about what Jesus said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled"? [Luke 6.20-21] Personally, I don’t consider it very faithful to ignore the poor and the hungry and the conditions that allow poverty to flourish.
It all makes me wonder whether our nominally Christian politicians have ever heard Mary’s song, the Magnificat, which is today’s text. Any Episcopalians among them hear it as part of Evensong, but sometimes its radical message gets disguised by beautiful choral settings. Listening to some of these ethereal canticles, you would never know that Mary’s words are an anti-imperial manifesto.
Her words are powerful and raw: “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.” This is a subversive song of the kingdom of God that Mary sings and that her son proclaims. This is about socioeconomic jujitsu, throwing the norms of the world on their head. This is anything but the so-called prosperity gospel…it’s not the rich and the well-fed who are blessed, it’s the poor and hungry.
I wonder how many Christians this year will hear the nativity stories and wonder why God sent Jesus not to a palace in Rome, but to a Judean peasant household…not to well-educated, well-off parents, but to an unmarried young woman. And if they do wonder about such things, do they go one step further and ponder what it means for them as people of faith? What does it mean for you? What does it mean for us at Plymouth?
We can look at Mary’s song and say, “Yeah…Caesar and Herod were really awful people and oppressed the poor.” And we can do that without ever wondering who the Caesars and Herods are in today’s setting. Imperialism has not died off over the last 2,000 years. If anything, it has flourished, especially among the nominally Christian nations of Europe and the supposedly Christian United States.
This is not a very cheery conversation to have on the final Sunday of Advent, but it is an important part of the Christmas message that we hear Mary’s words of justice and that we don’t domesticate Jesus into baby who is perpetually “meek and mild.”
We are given a choice about the path we will follow. We can follow the mainstream American path that invites us into a dog-eat-dog world of competition and survival of the fittest, where people are allowed to fall into poverty by the millions, where humans who are ill with Covid are sheltered but not fed by our government. They have made room at the inn…they just haven’t fed the hungry.
You and I are invited down a different path. It is the way of Jesus, the way of Mary, the way of God’s realm, where the poor are blessed and the hungry are fed. As Christians we are called not just to acknowledge such parts of our faith, but to put them into practice and to encourage others to do the same. So, if you are looking for something to do this afternoon, call Senators Bennet and Gardner and Congressman Neguse or Ken Buck, if you’re in his district, and encourage them to restore unemployment benefits set to expire after Christmas and to get an economic relief act passed now. Consider taking action not only as a Christmas gift to people who really need it, but as an act of faith.
Part of what Mary calls us to join her in doing is to magnify the Lord. The Greek word literally means to enlarge or amplify, so what might it mean for you as an ordinary everyday follower of Jesus to amplify his message? How might you turn up the volume a bit this week and act from a sense of costly love?
I wonder whether any of us sometimes get caught up in a current or in an eddy tainted with the bitterness of Ebenezer Scrooge and if we need a brief visit from a spirit who shows us what the world would be like if we learned to open our hearts to one another and truly act from love and abundance. Maybe that spirit isn’t a ghost imagined by Charles Dickens. Perhaps it is the spirit of Mary, calling to us across the millennia to amplify God’s liberating realm and to rejoice in God’s presence.
It has been a difficult year with the pandemic, the fires in our foothills, and political discord. And for some of us, it’s been even harder as we struggle to make ends meet and keep a roof over our heads or to find someplace warm and safe to sleep at night. And in the years ahead, this congregation will have a role to play in influencing the moral issues that we as a wider community face.
Our celebration of Christmas will be different in this pandemic year. We may not be surrounded by extended family. We won’t be gathering in this sanctuary together. But we can still unite our hearts and hands and voices and sing Mary’s radical refrain. We can still worship together remotely and safely. We can look forward with hope at getting the pandemic under control. We can know that even if we are in solitude, that we are never alone. Christmas will be different, but my hope for you is that you find new meanings in God’s unique entry onto the scene of human history and that you will become part of the story.
I leave you with the word of a great 20th century theologian, Karl Rahner: “Christmas tells you in your solitude: Trust your surroundings, they are not emptiness; Let go and you will find; Renounce and you will be rich.
May it be so. Amen.
© 2020 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.