Text: Luke 9:28-36
28-31 About eight days after saying this, [Jesus] climbed the mountain to pray, taking Peter, John, and James along. While he was in prayer, the appearance of his face changed and his clothes became blinding white. At once two men were there talking with him. They turned out to be Moses and Elijah—and what a glorious appearance they made! They talked over his exodus, the one Jesus was about to complete in Jerusalem.
32-33 Meanwhile, Peter and those with him were slumped over in sleep. When they came to, rubbing their eyes, they saw Jesus in his glory and the two men standing with him. When Moses and Elijah had left, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, this is a great moment! Let’s build three memorials: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He blurted this out without thinking.
34-35 While he was babbling on like this, a light-radiant cloud enveloped them. As they found themselves buried in the cloud, they became deeply aware of God. Then there was a voice out of the cloud: “This is my Son, the Chosen! Listen to him.”
36 When the sound of the voice died away, they saw Jesus there alone. They were speechless. And they continued speechless, said not one thing to anyone during those days of what they had seen.
For the Word of G-d in Scripture, for the Word of G-d Among Us, For the Word of G-d within us, Thanks be to G-d!
A Middle Way[i]
Holy One, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be a blessing in your sight. Oh G-d wherever we find ourselves in this mountaintop story, may we be fed in this time together, to return and work for justice, peace and love. Amen.
Good morning. It’s a pleasure to get to be with you today and to sink into this Transfiguration Sunday with you. And be gathered in person again. As Pastor Hal said earlier, my name is Laura Nelson. I am one of the ministers that this church has sponsored through the ordination process. This means, that you have loved and supported me as I grew from someone curious about ministry nearly 14 years ago to just finishing my first call at the Fort Collins Area Interfaith Council. As always Thank You. I served at Interfaith Council for the past 6 years. If you haven’t come across it before, the Fort Collins Area Interfaith Council is a network of 40-ish faith communities and nonprofits in and around Fort Collins. Our Mission is: facilitating interfaith understanding, cooperation and action towards the greater good in our community. We meet once a month – and when we meet in person we rotate through gathering at different faith communities and nonprofits. Interfaith Council is 43 years old, and has been at the start of many of the crucial nonprofits in town, especially ones about affordable housing, combating homelessness and food insecurity.
Plymouth has always had a strong relationship with the Interfaith Council. We are one of the 10 faith communities that stepped up in 1979 to work together at the very beginning. We have been one of the largest donors. And, because Plymouth has been my church home as I took this first call, that strong relationship deepened even further. So I want to take this time to share with you what we have accomplished together in the last 6 years.
We created a Celebrations of Light Documentary highlighting the many many religious festivals celebrated in the Fort Collins Area from November to January and displayed it at the Museum of Discovery. We sponsored Interfaith Friendsgiving, a town/gown interfaith dinner that brought over 200 people together each year for dialogue and celebration with a kosher meal cooked by students. We gave away over $50,000 pooled by the faith communities to local nonprofits and new interfaith projects. We organized rallies and vigils in response to the attack on the mosque and other instances of faith-based hate in town and around the country. We hosted annual Blood Drives, honoring with our bodies that there is no Jewish or atheist or Christian or Muslim or None blood, just human blood that can save lives.
We celebrated our 40th anniversary, making a documentary about our history, offering awards to organizations we had founded, and having a community dinner with leaders past and present. During lockdown we partnered with the World Wisdoms Project to publish videos from local folks sharing how their faith traditions were helping them through the early days of the pandemic. And after George Floyd’s murder, we entered into the messy work of talking about racial justice as a majority white organization by sponsoring 4 Town Halls on Racism in Northern Colorado. And we worked on how to apologize as an organization, when even our best intended efforts caused harm.[ii] Finally, we offered care to the mountain communities during and after the Cameron Peak Fire, work that has blossomed into a Community Chaplaincy program that you will hear more about.
But those are the big flashy highlights. I think our most important work happened on the person to person level. The surprise and delight members had at getting to know each other on a deep level during our gatherings. So often, people would share with me how excited they were to get to know and then work with people who held such different beliefs than them. Or how people who were working on a project in their faith community could find resources and camaraderie with others, all who hadn’t realized the others were out there. A great example of this is the Climate and Environmental Team, who gather to collaborate on climate justice issues. But they are also a space where folks working on environmental issues in their own congregations can get support from each other, especially when they meet resistance or aren’t taken seriously.
Leading the Interfaith Council, I got to see again and again that all of those things that make us different from each other – be it faith, or age, gender, or race – make us more creative and resilient as a community. We are Better Together precisely because of our differences, not in spite of them. I will say this again: We are Better Together precisely because of our differences. And at the Fort Collins Interfaith Council, we got to embody that together each month.
It has been an incredible organization to lead, and to participate in. And Plymouth – whether you know it or not – has been a major part in making it all happen. Two of the rallies used our parking lots, with permission and organizing happening swiftly and seamlessly. Our Fellowship Hall was often a backup, if there was an emergency at any other host location. As a church we have offered money and volunteer support to nearly every new project that has come out of the Interfaith Council. And, when it came time to make the case for me to be ordained to do this work, this church entered into a new type of covenant with the Interfaith Council to make it happen.
For so many of us who attend here, being deeply a part of interfaith work can feel like second nature, just a part of how we should be as church. But let me tell you, our presence and commitment to work that honors people of different faith traditions or no faith traditions is so powerful. It builds trust among people who are suspicious of Christians, people who have been harmed by the Christian Church. And even if it isn’t Plymouth or the United Church of Christ that did the harm, it is still our responsibility to work for that healing.
So let me bring this alongside our text for this Transfiguration Sunday. Jesus heads up a mountain with Peter, John and James to pray. And during that time of prayer, Jesus’ face changes, his clothes appear dazzling white and Moses and Elijah suddenly join him. Seeing this astounding thing, Peter wants to create a monument to the moment on the mountaintop. But instead a voice booms from the clouds saying “This is my Son, Listen to him!”[iii] And, instead of a monument, Jesus continues on, with healing and teaching.
This text that is all about transformation.[iv] A transformation that reveals a deeper truth about Jesus. It shows how transformation can connect us to the long traditions. And, it is often uncomfortable.
If I were to look at the 43 years of Interfaith Council’s history, and especially to look at the last 6 years when I served, I would say that the most important work that we did was to demonstrate that our City is Better Together. It is a deep truth that I got to see revealed again and again when people of a different faith went from strangers to friends. That friendship made us stronger and more committed to each other when challenging times arose. And it has for every disaster and challenging time that the Interfaith Council has faced in its 43 years, connecting us to a long tradition of people coming together across major differences to meet the needs of the age.
But transformation is not usually comfortable; transformation can often feel relentless. In our text, Peter suggests they build a monument. He wants to stop, to mark this as the moment when Jesus’ work was accomplished. But that’s not how transformation – or really life – works. There is always more growth to be had, more healing, more justice, more learning to be done. I am excited to witness and cheer on the transformation that will happen at Interfaith Council in the coming years. And for my own transformation, it is time for me to explore rest and to learn a new balance before I start whatever is next for me as a minister; let me tell you it feels like a terrifying wilderness. (Big Pause)
Oh Plymouth friends, we’ve certainly been taken by transformation these past few years. And like the disciples in our text this morning, we are tired, overwhelmed, confused. All while change marches on. So as we move into this Lenten season, a traditional time for pause and reflection, how do we honor what we have been through, knowing there is more to come? Can we find a middle way between stopping to build a grand monument and moving on as if nothing has happened? How do we support each other in our very human needs for rest and processing? I hope we take these questions with us into Lent and into our lives this week.
This is a practice that has actually helped me find a middle way, and I hope you’ll join me in it. I’ve learned it while being a part of a group reading through My Grandmother’s Hands by Resmaa Menakem. It is a body-centered approach to healing racialized trauma and working for racial justice. And it feels especially appropriate to check in with our bodies, when we are together in this space after once again having time apart.
So, if you are here in the Plymouth building with me or at home watching the livestream, get comfortable, close your eyes if it will help, and turn your focus inward. What’s it like in your body? Are there places that feel constricted? Places that feel especially open? Does anything feel hot or cold? Is that different from before you entered the building or began this service? As as you notice those things, I invite you to just offer some loving attention to those places that are calling your attention. To be together again, or witnessing some of us be together again is a big thing and paying attention to how our bodies are responding will help us manage that experience.
[i] One of my goals for this sermon is to write simply, keep it short, and to keep my transitions really clear. There are times when I love being artful and cramming everything in.But one of the tenets of trauma-informed anything is to keep speeches short and simple. When brains are processing trauma, we don’t have as much capacity to process other things. And if there is anything that draws us all together right now as a people, it is that we are metabolizing a new global trauma and coming to a more public grips with many of the global traumas already present: inequality, institutional racism and authoritarianism. I’m going to try to use footnotes for the things that I am cutting in order to keep the spoken part more simplified and streamlined. Having now shared this sermon, I am even less convinced that I did this well.
[ii] I don’t think I would have said it when I first started as a leader, but I am convinced now that being able to offer a real apology - that acknowledges harm and makes plans for how to reduce harm in the future and make restitution- is a crucial skill for any organization.
[iii] I just had a vision as G-d the angry mom trying to back up her son. Like I have had to do on the playground at times, or want to but know it won’t necessarily be effective. I’ve never thought of the pull of “have to let them fight their own battles” as being a divine challenge before.
[iv] The Greek word in use here is the root word of metamorphosis or transformation. It’s in the Latin Vulgate that the word becomes the Latin word for “transfigure,” to make the claim that the core of who Jesus was stayed the same. That’s an interesting translation piece meditate on in a sermon, but there was not enough space here.
The Rev. Laura Nelson was most recently the president of the Fort Collins Interfaith Council and is a member of Plymouth. She was ordained here on September 22, 2019.
"The Welcome We Offer"
A sermon related to Matthew 25:34-40
The unity of humanity and life (non-dual consciousness) is the Good News and our realization of this Good News (salvation) is illustrated by how we engage the margins.
Then the Sovereign will say to those on the right, ‘Come, you that are blessed, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’
Then the righteous will answer, ‘When was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the Sovereign will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.’
For the Word of God in Scripture,
For the Word of God among us,
For the Word of God within us,
Thanks be to God.
This scene of the Last Judgment portrayed in Matthew, Chapter 25 is familiar to many in our tradition. Like most Biblical stories and scenes, it is not literal, but is a collage of symbols and images. It is a teaching vehicle. Such end time or final moment scenes are a way to teach about ultimate values, a way to say when it is all added up, in the end, this is what matters, this is what is true, this is what is of value to Life.
So what is Matthew’s Jesus trying to show us, to teach us? Apparently, it involves the margins of life and our relationship to that. The sick and the imprisoned, the thirsty and the hungry, the naked and the alienated. These are the people and realities at the margins of life, aren’t they? These are those who are suffering and struggling for what is necessary to live. They seek the life-giving realities of health and freedom, clean water and food, shelter and a place to connect and belong, a place to be welcomed.
In one sense, Matthew’s Jesus is teaching a simple faith of compassion that is known in its simple concrete compassionate actions. There are those in need, meet their need; visit them in prison, care for them in their sickness, provide the basics of clothing, shelter, and food. Participate in giving directly to another in their need.
If that is all you get from this story, that is good and faithful. That is an important part of the way of life.
And … we can go further. This can be an image also of social, systemic justice. To use another image, we can give people fish, and can even teach them to fish, yes, but we can also ask why there are so many without fish. We can ask why the waters are not plentiful with fish or why only certain people get to fish in the waters that are plentiful? This systemic understanding also is a worthy and faithful teaching of this story. We can extend this story to the collective common good and be faithful with our communal and political actions to serve that good; we advocate, we vote, we act in large blocs and seek to organize our society differently.
A second layer of this teaching. Go and do likewise.
And there is yet another truth level to this story. There’s a deeper layer, a paradoxical spiritual truth of the unity of Life, a mystical reality where we include ourselves in the marginalized possibility, where identity of self and other is not so distinct.
Over the years, in churches like ours, we may have gotten used to hearing this story as the one in which we are the givers always, the ones with water and food and shelter and clothing, always the ones visiting. But in Jesus’ identification with those on the margins, The Christ Voice is acknowledging the whole condition of life as including the margins. In Jesus’ life, as one who was willing to be at the margins, to be the suffering one, to be the one in prison, he is including the margins as part of the whole for all of us. As it is said in the wisdom traditions of the East, “I am that.” At the level of spiritual paradox, beyond individual egos and individualism, we are each humanity in all its forms. Indeed, we are that.
The root spiritual knowing of the unity and interdependence of humanity and all life is the taproot for the welcome we are called to offer, a welcome of compassionate engagement with the margins. It draws the circle wide and wider still.
Let me clarify: This does not erase the difference in our social locations. The damaging fiction of race and the realities of unequal wealth and education and opportunity and healthcare are real and have real world consequences. But even as that is true, the good news from Matthew’s community is that the way through this injustice and inequality, this separation and hardheartedness, requires also the mystery of unity so that we are always engaging the margins with a compassionate egalitarian welcome as partners, as kin, as compatriots in the situation and miracle of life.
The spiritual truth of Christ being there, of us being there as humanity, keeps us from a sense of superiority and separateness. We cannot be a gated community of secure givers, seeing ourselves only as havers and helpers. We also must have a humble identity of sameness, equality, and solidarity.
As Lilla Watson, Gangulu nation woman, professor, and activist of Australia says….“If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
As the hymn we will sing today at the end of our service says,
In Christ there is no East or West,
in Christ no South or North;
But one community of love
throughout the whole wide earth.
Christ Presence is on both sides of the equation because ultimately there are not two sides at the deepest level. The Christ Presence is the one that meets the needs, alleviates the suffering, is in solidarity with those on the margins and, at the same time, is the suffering one on the margin receiving care and experiencing relief and liberation. I wonder if we can stretch our spiritual imaginations to imagine that.
Perhaps you are one of the people who has seen themselves as resourced, as having those things that people on the margins do not, and you see yourself as a person trying to meet those needs of those on the margin. Wonderful. That is one of the good and simple teachings of the story.
And it is also in our Bible story that the very conception of giver and receiver breaks down as Jesus in the role of the Christ slips into the mystical identity of the other.
Just as God-with-us, Immanuel, became the imprisoned one, the naked one, the suffering one, the vulnerable one, so we too know this can be true for any of us, literally or spiritually, and that at a deep level, we are all in this being human together.
Perhaps another story can help us. Once upon a time there was a wise abbot of a monastery who was the friend of an equally wise rabbi. This was in the old country, long ago, when times were always hard, but just then they were even worse. The abbot’s community was dwindling, and the faith life of his monks was fearful, weak and anxious. He went to his friend and wept. His friend, the Rabbi, comforted him, and said “there is something you need to know, my brother. We have long known in the Jewish community that the Messiah is one of you.”
"What,” exclaimed the abbot, “the Messiah is one of us? How can this be?”
But the Rabbi insisted that it was so, and the abbot went back to his monastery wondering and praying, comforted and excited. Once back in the monastery, he would pass by a monk and wonder if he was the one. Sitting in chapel, praying, he would hear a voice and look intently at a face and wonder, ‘Is he the one?’ The abbot had always been kind, but now began to treat all of his brothers with profound kindness and awe, ever deeper respect, even reverence. Soon everyone noticed. One of the other brothers came to him and asked him what had happened to him.
After some coaxing, the abbot told him what the rabbi had said. Soon the other monk was looking at his brothers differently, with deeper respect and wondering. Word spread quickly: the Messiah is one of us. The monastery was suddenly full of life, worship, love and grace. Their prayer life was rich and passionate, devoted, and services were alive and vibrant. Soon the surrounding villagers came to the services, listening and watching intently, and many joined the community of monks. After their novitiate, when they took their vows, they were told the mystery, the truth that their life was based upon, the source of their strength, the richness of their life together: The Messiah is one of us.
The monastery grew and expanded into house after house, and the monks grew in wisdom and grace before each other and in the eyes of God. And they say still, that if you stumble across this place where there is life and hope and kindness and graciousness, that the secret is the same: The Messiah is one of us.
Welcome has been named as core value of this congregation, a radical and abundant welcome. The very first strategic goal listed in the recently approved strategic plan. The welcome we offer will need to come from that place of compassion that meets the concrete needs of those on the margin, yet also calls us into the deep place of nonduality where we are no different from and even identify as humanity marginalized and in need, each seeing that we can be The Christ giving and The Christ receiving.
What if we welcomed each other and anyone as The Christ?
What if we welcomed ourselves as having Christ within us, both the humble Christ in need who receives and the Christ of compassion who responds?
This is Good News that is offered to us. Let us welcome it.
J.T. comes to Plymouth as an experienced interim pastor, most recently, as Bridge Minister at University Congregational UCC in Seattle. Previously, he served congregations in Denver, Laramie, and Forest Grove, Oregon. Read more
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning
Plymouth Congregational UCC
I grew up in the United Church of Christ in the 70s, a time when many of us kids in mainline churches didn’t learn much about the Bible. But I do remember memorizing two passages from the Bible: the 23rd Psalm and the Beatitudes. Beatus in Latin means blessed or happy or favored, and so the section of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount with all the “Blesseds” are called the Beatitudes. Of course, we memorized Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes, not Luke’s. Most American Christians probably don’t even know that Luke brought the Sermon on the Mount down to earth and calls it the Sermon on the Plain.
Luke’s rendition is a more raw, tough-minded set of blessings, which is probably the reason that most of us know Matthew’s version better. And Luke leaves in not just the blessings, but includes the curses as well, and we can’t have that, can we?!
The church I grew up in was a very affluent congregation. The poor in spirit were blessed, and that was good news indeed for my family, for a raft of CEOs who were members of our congregation. This was a congregation that defined privilege and wealth. I don’t envy the clergy at that congregation trying to preach on Luke’s version of the Beatitudes: imagine telling the captains of industry: “Blessed are you poor” but “woe to you who are rich!” Can you imagine?! That would be tough to hear if you were in their shoes.
I hate to tell you this…we are in their shoes.
The Greek word we translate as “poor,” ptochos, doesn’t mean struggling middle class. It doesn’t mean that you bought a more expensive car than you should have and you’re having trouble making the payments. It doesn’t mean that things are tight because your son or daughter is attending a private liberal-arts college. It doesn’t mean that you’re worried that your 401(k) won’t be what you hoped so you can retire when you’re 65. Ptochos means dirt poor…reduced to begging…hungry…without any property. While most of us experience financial struggles of one type or another, there are very few folks in this congregation who are in that place…who are “blessed” in that way.
But, the rest of us: woe to us who are rich, for we have received our consolation!
Some scholars say that these Beatitudes are directed just to the disciples, not to a larger crowd. (And you could make that argument, based on Luke’s account: “Then he looked up at his disciples and said: ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.’”) One scholar writes, “As such they do not speak of ‘the general human conditions of poverty and suffering’ applicable to the crowds or the generic ‘anxiety about the basic necessities’ but of specific consequences of discipleship.”
Phew! That was a close one. Maybe the text really isn’t about poverty in general. We don’t have to worry unless…we… are… disciples…or…followers of Christ.
The reality is that 2.3 billion people on this planet – 31% of everyone around the world (and 65% of us in the United States) – claim to be Christian, so if poverty is supposed to be a “specific consequence of discipleship,” then a lot of us are blowing it. (Just for the record, 25 percent of the world is Muslim, and only 0.18 percent are Jewish.) Maybe we’re meant to be sacrificing a bit more than we are already. Perhaps we are meant to be a blessing to the ptochoi – the poorest of the poor. Why? Because Jesus said God has shown them favor.
I have a hunch that most of us worshipping today would our lunch if a hungry person sat down next to us; we are a very compassionate congregation. But, there are a lot of hungry people around the world and even in our community whom we simply don’t see. And sometimes there are hungry people whom we don’t WANT to see.
Sometimes, there are people who we wish would remain invisible. We wish we didn’t have to see refugees trying to make their way from Africa into Europe. We would rather not see Mexicans and Central Americans coming across the border into the United States. And we’d rather not be forced to acknowledge and deal with people living in Fort Collins experiencing homelessness.
Most of us would share our lunch with a refugee, give a drink to a Mexican migrant, or give a few more bucks to Neighbor to Neighbor. And some of us at Plymouth are doing a whole lot more than that. A few weeks back, our FFH Team finished a week of hosting several homeless families at Plymouth, which requires a large group of volunteers. Thank you all for putting your faith into action. You make a difference in the lives of people experiencing homelessness.
Why do we tolerate a world that allows these conditions to exist in the first place? I’m not suggesting that we just throw money at problems – which often creates vicious cycles of dependence – though it’s a place to start. I am suggesting that we help create equitable, sustainable systems that ultimately enable people to help themselves. And when dire situations arise globally or locally, we should have the capacity to respond with compassion and tangible assistance…even if it costs us dearly.
Dom Helder Camara, a Brazilian archbishop who died in the 90s, put it this way: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”
I know that we need to have the Mission, and Faith Family Hospitality network, but why are there homeless people in Fort Collins to begin with? Is it because businesses offer low-wage jobs that can’t keep a family housed in this community? Is it because there is a limited supply of affordable rental options? Is it because we have a crisis in mental health and substance abuse in Fort Collins that we are only beginning to address? Is it because our taxation priorities have shifted toward aiding the super-rich at the expense of the middle class? (If you think that is an exaggeration, think about Amazon’s ability to avoid federal taxes. Over the last three years, they have paid an effective tax rate of 4.3% on $4.7 billion in profits. I don’t know about you, but my tax rate is a bit higher than 4.3%.)
Housing Catalyst, our local housing authority, is making some great, creative strides around permanent supportive housing that assists formerly homeless folks to live in a stable environment with on-site support for their physical and mental challenges. You may have seen Mason Place where the Midtown Arts Center used to be, which for the last year has been housing 60 formerly homeless people with disabilities. And they are doing great things toward increasing affordable housing, like the construction of The Village apartments on Horsetooth.
Policy makes a big difference, and the American Rescue Plan passed last March had a significant impact on child poverty in the United States. Researchers at Columbia University estimate that this one act helped keep 3.5 million American children out of poverty last year. According to Gregory Acs of the Urban Institute, “Reducing child poverty has the potential to have profound intergenerational benefits. If kids are not poor, if households are not stressed by poverty, then they’re more likely to … do better in school, get more education and be on a better path forward as adults.” And yet, the child tax credit, is not being renewed by Congress. The kids slipping back into poverty will suffer. In a so-called Christian nation, how can we allow this?
What I hope you hear me saying is that our faith demands justice, not just charity. Discipleship is costly. Justice is costly. And if we have the courage to open our eyes, we will see there is much work to be done in the world around us.
Here is a secret I’ll let you in on…doing justice work grounded in faith makes life meaningful. If there in one thing the pandemic has made clear (through The Great Resignation and in clarifying our priorities) is that we want life to have meaning.
Aren’t there times when we would rather that Jesus remain invisible, too…or at least silent? Jesus is so non-threatening when he is the paschal victim on the cross or when he is that babe in the manger. Jesus is so benign when all we have to do is say that he is our Lord and Savior in order to be saved. But as Christians we must look carefully and consider Jesus, because as Isaiah said, “the eyes of the blind will be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped.” (Isa. 35.5) We have no choice but to see and to listen!
Low-commitment disciples aren’t following the Jesus of the Beatitudes. There is far more required of us if we claim to be disciples of the Christ of our faith, who demands that we risk everything for the sake of the kingdom of God.
One of my favorite poets was an Anglican priest in Wales, R.S. Thomas, and he wrote this poem, called “The Kingdom,” which reflects the rough-and-tumble beatitudes of Luke.
It’s a long way off but inside it
There are quite different things going on:
Festivals at which the poor man
Is king and the consumptive is
Healed; mirrors in which the blind look
At themselves and love looks at them
Back; and industry is for mending
The bent bones and the minds fractured
By life. It’s a long way off, but to get
There takes no time and admission
Is free, if you will purge yourself
Of desire, and present yourself with
Your need only and the simple offering
Of your faith, green as a leaf.
I hope the words of Jesus push you at least a little to do something, to grow, to expand your horizons and your involvement, to go deeper in your faith, to make a difference. Because we work together at Plymouth, you don’t have to do it alone…we have sisters and brothers working as one for the kind of justice Jesus espoused in the Beatitudes.
My prayer for us is that we approach God’s world and our faith with eyes, ears, and hearts open to God, to our best selves, and to all of God’s children.
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.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
Years ago, I preached on this text and I focused on what it would take for us to become “fishers of folk” and invite new people into our community of faith. I used the analogy of fly-fishing and using different artificial flies to catch different sorts of people…some of us will bite on a tiny gray parachute Adams and others of us will strike at a big, black woolly bugger. And I think that progressive evangelism or “inviting” aspect of the story is absolutely key, and it’s going to be part of our post-pandemic rebuilding. But I’m going to ask you to go somewhere different with me today.
Jesus goes out onto the lake with these guys who have spent their lives fishing…they are the professionals, and their father Zebedee must have taught them the trade over the course of many years. They would know where the fish tended to congregate, what time of day they were active and feeding, and how to use nets masterfully to maximize the catch. But like all fishers, they have the occasional bad day and get “skunked,” which is what happened on the day of our story. So, up comes this spiritual teacher who needs a water-borne pulpit to preach to the gathered crowd, and after the sermon, he tells the guys to row out into deeper water and cast their nets. Can’t you just imagine them folding their arms and saying, “Okay, Jesus, if that’s what you want us to do…”? I imagine that there might have been a few sniggers behind Jesus’ back as well. “Okay, carpenter-boy…let’s see you fish!” And of course, they bring in a miraculous catch. It isn’t just the normal evening’s haul, but rather such an abundance of fish that they need to get another boat to come alongside them to help bring up the nets, which were filled to bursting. Why not just a good or an adequate catch?
Now, it may be that the sons of Zebedee were absolutely gobsmacked…they couldn’t say a word because they were stunned. Or maybe they were embarrassed that the dude from Nazareth bested them in knowing how to fish. Or perhaps they couldn’t believe their eyes. But the only recorded verbal response comes from Peter, who falls down at Jesus’ feet and says, “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man.” Think about that response for a minute. Jesus provides an incredible abundance of fish for these fishermen who were eking out a living on the lake shore, and the best you can come up with is “Get outta here…I’m a sinner and not worthy!”
How many of us would respond in a similar way? Imagine yourself in Peter’s place and Jesus providing twenty amazing new clients or a classroom full of totally motivated students or fellow engineers who were always open to your brilliant ideas. Imagine! How would you respond to that unconditionally loving and abundant gift? One response might be, “Hey, Jesus, that’s just too much…I can’t accept this.” Perhaps that is why Peter is overwhelmed. What would YOU say to Jesus?
I wonder if any of you would say something that none of the disciples did: THANKS! There seems to be a sense of amazement among the disciples and Peter can’t accept that he is deserving of such a gift. But no one in the narrative turns to Jesus and says, “Thank you, Lord. You’ve done something amazing here, and none of us could have done that on our own. We are so grateful to you for what you’ve provided!”
Are we even remotely aware of the amazing haul that God provides for each of us? The fact that we can broadcast worship? That we even have a church? That Jesus came to share the good news of the kingdom of God and it got passed along to us? That we live in an environment with incredible natural beauty? That we are able to understand one another’s speech and that we can read and that we can explore spiritual mysteries? That we are alive in this very moment? Taken as individual miracles, each of those far surpasses a boatload of fish! Do we recognize the abundance of miraculous gifts God has made possible in our lives? Each of us is the recipient of far greater gifts than fish, which are going to smell funky in a few hours anyway. Take just a moment and think of three gifts that God has given to you unconditionally. [pause]
How do we respond to God’s entrusting so much abundance to us? How do we get beyond being speechless to moving in the direction of a response of gratitude? How do we pay those gifts forward? That’s one of the things communities of faith can help with…being conscious of what has been shared with us, living in a continual sense of gratitude for God’s abundance. And that leads us to responsible stewardship of everything entrusted to us: our bodies, our souls, our families and pets, our possessions and our wealth, all of which are on loan from God. We have an ancient wisdom tradition that guides us away from the “greed is good” and “it’s all about me” mentality that our culture applauds and moves us in the direction of self-giving love.
After Peter offers that “I’m not worthy” line, Jesus comes back to him and says those words we hear so often in the New Testament, the words I wrote about in last Tuesday’s reflection: “Don’t be afraid.” That phrase occurs five times in the Gospel of Luke alone.
None of the disciples may have been very good at articulating their gratitude to Jesus. Nobody wrote a thank-you note or even said WOW! Instead, something more important happened inside them. They saw and were amazed. And some sense of gratitude and wonder filled them so much that when Jesus said that they would be fishers of folks, “they left everything and followed him.”
It makes me wonder whether our sense of gratitude, even when it is not enunciated, could be a vehicle for transformation in our lives…that being grateful to God for the everyday miracles and abundance all around us could and should be life-changing for you and for me.
What sense of gratitude and abundance fills you? Are you aware of the source of that abundance? How can you not only SAY thank you, but how will you put your gratitude into practice, giving it legs, giving it the power to change your life and the lives of others?
Don’t be afraid. Amen.
© 2022 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 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.