Annual Meeting Sunday
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
12 Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee.
13 He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14 so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
15 "Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles, 16 the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned."
17 From that time Jesus began to proclaim, "Repent, for the kingdom
of heaven has come near."
18 As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea — for they were fishermen.
19 And he said to them, "Follow me, and I will make you fish for people." 20 Immediately they left their nets and followed him.
21 As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them.
22 Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
23 Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.
Our scripture texts today begins with three prophets. Prophets are very important characters in Hebrew scriptures. They are the mouth-piece of the Divine, the Almighty. They do not foretell the future. They speak God’s call to repentance, reminding the people who they are as God’s people and how God’s ways guide and shape their lives in the world. Prophets are oft quoted authorities in the new testament gospels and in Paul’s letters. Quoting them is a bit like our Congress people invoking the founders of our country and the framers of our laws and governance to remind us why are who we are. For the communities that hear the earliest Christian writings, quoting a prophet adds certification of facts regarding God’s working in the world and verification of God’s holy intent for human beings and creation. So, our scripture story today begins with three prophets.
One has been arrested for being subversive to the state. He preaches allegiance to God before allegiance to religious and political authority. John the Baptizer’s life is in danger. Soon he will quite literally lose his head. Another prophet, long dead but much revered, is quoted to give legitimacy to the prophetic ministry of the third prophet. Perhaps because he has recently been associated with John, he has moved from his hometown. Maybe to be less in the public eye of the religious and political authorities in Jerusalem. And according to our gospel writer, it is to fulfill what the ancient prophet, Isaiah, said about him as savior of God’s people. This One will come from the land near the Sea of Galilee. We know that eventually Jesus will also be arrested as a subversive, but that is three years down the line. His official ministry is just beginning.
If he wants to stay out of trouble, why does Jesus begin his ministry with the same line that got John the Baptizer in trouble? “Repent! The kingdom of heaven is near!” Perhaps Jesus delivered it in a kinder, gentler manner than John’s seeming fire and brimstone, but still....its subversive! It is code for turn from the ways of the Roman empire, the oppressor, the Roman ways of splendor and military force that have been adopted even by some Jewish authorities. Turn toward the ways of God, the ways of justice, peace and joy in God’s Holy Spirit. The Holy One, Yahweh, is the ultimate authority, not Caesar in Rome, not Herod the Jewish ruler in Jerusalem. “Repent! God’s realm is near! God is near!”
One might think that this prophetic proclamation would not be alarming or subversive to Jewish authorities. But it is. Familiar as it is, they seem to be putting the emphasis on “the kingdom.” (“The kingdom of God is near!”) They are looking for an earthly kingdom that would expel and defeat Romans, an earthly savior to replace Rome’ with a Jewish kingdom. Jesus, however, puts the emphasis on “of God,” God’s, justice and peace, that are larger and much more lasting than any earthly kingdom, larger than creation itself. (“The kingdom of God is near!”) God’s infinite and eternal realm of love, mercy, compassion and abundance that is not just out there, but also near, in fact right here, with us. In fact, within us. A realm where God’s will is done on earth as in heaven. 
This is the light that Jesus brings to the people, Jews and Gentiles, who are sitting in the darkness of oppression, poverty, persecution and death. Those who do not know or have forgotten the deliverance of God. Who have forgotten that God’s realm is always near! God’s ways are here to save the people from the darkness of hopelessness and despair! The writer of Matthew tells us in chapter 2 when Jesus is born that he is prophesied as the one named Emmanuel, God-with-us. It is no surprise to hear from the same writer that Jesus begins his ministry with the proclamation, “Repent, God’s realm is near!” Reading between the gospel lines, we can hear “God is with us!”
I’m guessing the fishermen, Simon Peter and Andrew, James and John with their father, Zebedee have heard this proclamation in the seaside towns around the Sea of Galilee. I’m guessing this is not their first encounter with the rabbi, Jesus. Or if it is, perhaps wonderfully intense conversation ensued on the beach before Jesus gave the call, “Follow me. I will make you fishers of people!” I imagine that the good news, God is with us, has already been working in some way on their hearts and minds and imaginations This is life-changing news! News that impels these rough fishermen to leave their nets to follow this man, to help spread this news of holy revolution so that others might be caught up in its nets of saving grace!
My imagination also asks me....what about the women? As good Jewish men, no doubt these fishermen had wives, children. Where are they? They can’t be simply quietly, subserviently cleaning the fish? What do the women say or do when their husbands are called away from their source of livelihood and into ministry? Have the women heard this rabbi and been changed by God’s good news? I can only hope this is the case. We have no way of knowing. I can only hope that the Jesus who goes out of his way to see and hear, acknowledge and respect, heal and uplift women in all four gospels would not be insensitive to the women, to families, in this first gathering of beloved community. I hope the women heard the call in their own way.
It's important to me that all are included as I echo the call to this beloved community – to you, men and women, youth and children. Whether your pronouns are she, her, hers or he, him, his or they, them theirs - Hear the call of the One proclaimed “God-with-us!” – “Repent, listen, turn back to God’s ways for the realm of God is near.” It begins with Jesus gathering community. He doesn’t go it alone as an outlaw prophet and healer. He gathers followers willing to learn with him, to work with him to spread God’s good news which is just as good today! And just as likely to be hidden by the those who emphasize “the kingdom” or “the realm” part of the proclamation over the “of God” part. Jesus’ proclamation, “Repent – God’s realm is near!” is still good news! And Jesus is still calling, “Follow me.”
Are we listening? Will we make manifest God’s realm in the coming year as God’s beloved community here at Plymouth? Will we spread the news like nets of saving grace and love for a very troubled world? And how will we do this? By praying for enemies so that our hearts are transformed with compassion. By turning our anger into curiosity to learn more about those who disagree with us or oppose us. By inviting others into community, sharing with others the gift of Plymouth, as we endeavor to follow and share God’s love, peace and justice. By remembering and acting on the trust that we live in God’s abundance, not in the lie of the world’s scarcity. By lovingly and firmly speaking truth to power. By courageously acting with more trust in God’s saving power and guidance than we ever thought we had, moving forward together as God’s people, the beloved community of Plymouth.
This is our call, our challenge, as we meet in our annual congregational meeting today to prayerfully do the business of the church, to be in community, to look toward the future together. May we answer by courageously following into deeper relationship with the Holy One, deeper relationship with the ways of the prophet and savior, Jesus the Christ, deeper relationship with one another as God’s beloved people. Will you, will we, follow? Amen.
©The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson, 2020 and beyond. May not be reprinted without permission.
Associate Minister Jane Anne Ferguson is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. Learn more about Jane Anne here.
1 Corinthians 1.1-10
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC,
Fort Collins, Colorado
My friends, this is a hard time for our nation. We live in an era when our beliefs have been shaken…that we do hold one another accountable for just and moral actions…that we do judge one another by the content of our character…that our nation’s leaders do act from a sense of integrity…that our nation itself does stand together…that we will come together as one people to tackle seemingly intractable challenges like global warming.
That is one of the reasons I give thanks to God always for you, Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ. Because when I read and hear and see the disgrace of impeachment, I remember that you are faithful, that God is faithful, and that you have gifts and graces have been strewn upon you in a truly extravagant manner…that you strive to be the Beloved Community. And that like a virus, Beloved Community is something you can catch if you’re not careful.
It’s a virus that lives not on the unwashed hands, but rather dwells in the swelling hearts of people like you. It’s not a virus you can catch with a handshake, but by opening your heart and your mind to something new. It’s not a virus that is transmitted by casual contact with other people, but rather is spread wherever love, beauty, awe, and grace are lived out. It is not a virus limited to one demographic sector: it spreads among Gen X and Boomers and Gen Y and the Greatest Generation whenever we break down walls and build bridges instead. It’s not a virus that is contained within any religious or ethnic group or gender: it is spread by reaching beyond oneself and beyond self-interest and radical individualism and beyond nationalism or chauvinism or racism.
None of us is fully inoculated against this virus that Dr. King called the Beloved Community, using the phrase of philosopher Josiah Royce. And I hate to tell you, but you have been exposed to that virus, which is sometimes a little hard to catch, and even harder to get rid of. You see, Jesus had the virus, and every time you come to the communion table, every time you are the recipient of God’s grace, when you received the gift of baptism as a new person, when you were given the gift of life itself – then my friends, you were exposed to the virus. And like any virus, the more you are exposed, the greater the chances that you will contract it and manifest the Beloved Community.
I am grateful for you, because you are not only living with that virus, you are a carrier, and I know that some of you are spreading that virus every time you lend a listening ear, act for justice, do a simple kindness, share something of yourself.
Beloved Community is the kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed. Beloved Community is where creation’s wealth is preserved and shared; where racism, bigotry, and prejudice are eradicated; where fear and intimidation are replaced by faith and love; where nations use nonviolent means to resolve their conflicts; where we see and live into the unity of humankind and creation. Beloved Community is grounded in nonviolence on a personal level, and group level, and on a societal level. In 1957, Dr. King wrote, “The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community. The aftermath of nonviolence is redemption. The aftermath of nonviolence is reconciliation.” Those of us who remember the fall of Apartheid in South Africa and the profound witness and work of Archbishop Desmond Tutu know that truth and reconciliation are the only viable alternatives to falsity and further violence.
When you read about or watch the impeachment hearings this week, I would ask you to remember something: that you have been exposed to a virus. Carrying that virus determines how you spend your money, how you think and feel, how you spend your weekends, how you vote, how you raise your children and treat your elders, how you exist as a gifted soul in God’s world. I give thanks for you. And as you watch the rancorous debate, and as you hear truths and falsehoods unfold, remember that you have been exposed to a virus that has changed you into someone who is not susceptible to the cancer of hatred. Carrying that virus means that you will not hate anyone and that you will work for reconciliation.
In an article in The Christian Century in 1966, Dr. King wrote, “I do not think of political power as an end. Neither do I think of economic power as an end. They are ingredients in the objective that we seek in life. And I think that end of that objective is a truly brotherly society, the creation of the beloved community.”
The kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed and the Beloved Community that Dr. King espoused are not fully realized…I don’t have to tell you that, you see the evidence every day. But a virus is not visible to the naked eye. It is within us and among us. It is passed to others by love and reconciliation. I give thanks for you, Plymouth, because I have witnessed your love and your faith, and you give me hope for the Beloved Community. Keep on keeping on!
I leave you with a short visual meditation on the March on Washington in 1963…may it spread the virus.
© 2020 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact email@example.com 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.
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