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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.
Genesis 18.1-15 & 21.1-7
Pentecost Season, Proper 6
Plymouth UCC, Fort Collins
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
The stories of Genesis are rich and mythic. Ancient when they were first committed to writing around the 6th century BCE during the crisis of the Hebrew people’s exile to Babylon. How do you keep your sacred traditions when you are separated from your homeland? You begin to write them down. Your three pastors are embarking on a preaching series of the stories of Genesis for the next three to 4 weeks. Today we jump right into the midst of the oldest patriarch and matriarch stories, those of Abraham and Sarah. Years before our story, in chapter 12 of Genesis, Abram is called by the One God “to go to a land that I will show you. And there I will bless you and make of your descendants a great nation. We will be in covenant.” The couple has been journeying with this God leading them for many years with this promise of abundant fertility hanging over their heads. Yet the first thing we learn about Sarah in this long story is that she is barren. Just before our story, in chapter 17 of Genesis, God has given the promise again along with new names, Abraham and Sarah. They are really old now and when God reiterates that Sarah will have a son, and soon, Abraham literally falls on his face laughing. He has a son by a second wife, Hagar. Why, asks Abraham, won’t God consider this son, Ishmael? God says that son will be blessed, but the divine covenant will be with the son of Sarah. And with that final word from God, Abraham goes to complete his part of the covenant that God is requiring, the ritual of circumcising all the men and boys of his household. Then our story begins.
Genesis 18.1-15 1
The Holy ONE appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. 2 He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. 3 He said, "My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. 4 Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. 5 Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on — since you have come to your servant." So they said, "Do as you have said." 6 And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, "Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes." 7 Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. 8 Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.
9 They said to him, "Where is your wife Sarah?" And he said, "There, in the tent." 10 Then one said, "I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son." And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. 11 Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. 12 So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, "After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?" 13 The Holy ONE said to Abraham, "Why did Sarah laugh, and say, 'Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?' 14 Is anything too wonderful for the GOD? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son." 15 But Sarah denied, saying, "I did not laugh"; for she was afraid. God said, "Oh yes, you did laugh."
Genesis 21.1-7 1
The Holy ONE dealt with Sarah as was said, and the Holy ONE did for Sarah as was promised. 2 Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the time of which God had spoken to him. 3 Abraham gave the name Isaac to his son whom Sarah bore him. 4 And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. 5 Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. 6 Now Sarah said, "God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me." 7 And she said, "Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age."
Years ago I gave a friend a card to cheer him up; if truth be told, to give him a bit of a kick in the pants. He was one of those folks who approach life with a furrowed brow and a bit of melancholy. Intense, deep feeling. The card said, “Life’s too mysterious. Don’t take it serious!” I don’t remember the picture on the card but with it I gave him one of those toys that is a figure put together on a string with moving limbs. You hold the string coming out of the top of the head and pull the string that is comes down between the legs and then the figure’s arms and legs move up and down as if its dancing. This figure was a vegetable man….he was completely clothed in all kinds of vegetables. Not a serious figure! A laughing one! I wanted my friend to laugh…to know that the deep seriousness of the world was such a deep mystery that in always pondering it with the deep intention of figuring it all out, we sometimes missed the deep joy that was also present in the mystery.
Life’s too mysterious! Don’t take it serious! Can we take this advice in considering the mysterious story we just heard from the book of Genesis, the Book of Beginnings? The mysteries of our own lives, of the world we live in now?
The three visitors in our story are, at first, a mystery. Appearing out of the shimmering desert heat to bring a mysterious message. They remind us of the invocation of the author of the book of Hebrews in the New Testament. “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” Was the writer of Hebrews invoking this story from Genesis? Perhaps. The ancient tradition of Middle Eastern culture is to always show extravagant hospitality in the desert. There it can be a matter of life and death. Does Abraham know upon first glance that these visitors are messengers from the Almighty? That they are actually the Almighty?
We soon learn that their visit is really for the woman behind the tent flap, the wife, Sarah. Whom we never see. We only hear her laugh and her voice. This is Sarah’s first personal encounter with the God her husband has been following all these years. Sarah has been the wife along for the ride. In earlier stories, she is portrayed not only as barren, but also as beautiful. We discover she is very canny. More than once she gets her husband out of a jam, including the times she is willing to be a sexual pawn with a more powerful tribal leader to protect her husband and her family.
The beautiful, but barren, Sarah also takes action after years of God’s promise to make of Abraham’s heirs a great nation. She gives Abraham her maid, Hagar, as a second-tier wife, in keeping with the cultural custom of the time. Hagar gives him a son and heir. Ishmael is born. But you heard how God dealt with that. Ishmael is not the son of promise.
Now God is dealing directly with Sarah. After all these many, many years of infertility she laughs in the face of seemingly miraculous news! If she has always lived under the stigma of being barren, why isn’t she laughing for Joy! Miraculous news! But is it wanted news? I don’t hear joy – yet – in Sarah’s laughter. I hear scoffing – “ A son? Yeah right!” I hear an incredulous laugh – “Oh, now you’re coming through with the promised son after I have suffered all these years!” I hear a laugh that hides rage and tears – “I have come to terms with my barren state! I put that grief behind me. I provided Abraham a son with the Hagar. Do I get any respect here? I should risk having a child in my advanced years….I should risk my life and the child’s? I should risk disappointment again if the pregnancy fails? Do I have a say in anything? Am I just a pawn in this relationship of my husband to his god? A tool used when convenient?” “This really is preposterous!” Sarah laughs and I imagine tears of anger and frustration and grief come down her face.
Laughing into the seriousness of mystery, into the face of God, is not a lark. It is a way to deal when life deals us unexpected hands in its game. Currently the mystery of two pandemics are staring us in the face – Covid-19 and Covid 1619 as one of our African-American UCC clergy colleagues named the long pandemic of racism in America. 1619 being the year that African slaves were first brought to the Jamestown colony in what is now Virginia. We are scrambling to face the mystery of both these pandemics. Mysteries that overwhelm our hearts, our minds and our ability to know what right actions to take. And laughter is probably not the first thing that may come to us as we look their crises simultaneously in the face – unless we laugh with Sarah, in incredulous, scoffing grief and angry frustration. Like Sarah we cannot change what is happening. It feels so tragically surreal.
We do not know, understand, why we are suddenly and mysteriously facing these two crises in our world. Both are born of deep pain and the loss of sacred lives. They are serious. With a pregnancy in old age foretold by a personal announcement from this mysterious God, Sarah had much to think about. It seems she chose to listen to herself, to this God, as the new life stirred within her amidst all the fears and physical discomfort of pregnancy. Would the baby really be born alive and well? It takes faith to be pregnant.
Like Sarah we are invited to “listen” through the pregnant pain of these two pandemics: to the hurt of those who are still dying from Covid-19, the hurt of their families, for those out of work, for businesses closing. We listen to the hurt caused by the disproportionate number of our brothers and sisters of color who have died in this pandemic. We listen to the ache in our bones for the pandemic of deaths caused by racial violence also staring us in the face. This has been a much longer season of pandemic that we have tried to ignore, or smooth over, without going to the root causes of greed and abuse of power. It’s time to defeat this racial pandemic, to heal its deep wounds. And there are actions to take.
But first we listen. To the history of centuries of our brothers’ and sisters’ pain. We listen to follow their lead in the birth of a new life of racial equality and economic balance that will bring justice for all. Just as a woman listens to her pregnant body’s promptings in labor and delivery, to the promptings of the new life within her. We listen and we pray without ceasing as we listen. Every pregnant woman knows the depth of deeply longing prayer for the new life within. And we trust in faith the Holy One’s words…”Is anything too wonderful for God?” Is anything too wonderful for God?
This is the serious mystery we are invited to co-create with, to laugh into, to wrestle and rejoice with…Life is too mysterious not to take serious in its pain and its joy. Too mysterious not to listen to before we jump to fix its pain. Sarah did not laugh with great joy till she held the newborn Yitsak, Isaac, in her arms. His name means “he who laughs.” She gave thanks and rejoiced, “Who knew I would nurse a child in my old age?” Is anything too wonderful for God? May we listen in the struggle of this mysterious pandemic time, may we find the moments of joy in the pain, may we take God’s promise seriously in the mystery of faith. Amen.
©The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, 2020 and beyond. Please do not reprint with out 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.
The Rev. Dr. Mark Lee
For Plymouth Congregational UCC
Pentecost 1A (lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=142)
The one constant in life is change. One of the constant changes we live is that of saying “Good-bye.” Sometimes it is but for a while. Sometimes it is for good. The good-bye I am leaving you with is somewhere in between, for while I am leaving my professional role with this church and going to serve elsewhere on a 2-year contract, Ivan will keep our ranch here and I’ll come back to visit him regularly. After 2 years, only God knows where I’ll be called next. Change, even good change, is often felt as loss, and as I say vaya con Dios it is with a mix of sorrow and hope.
Today’s texts carry that mix. Paul is signing off his last letter to Corinth, a place he might or might not get back to. And Jesus is trying to boil down years of teaching: A Great Commission that refers to his Great Commandment. Make disciples of every kind of people by teaching them to love one another.
Now when Matthew was writing this, it was a victory lap of sorts. His audience read this about 50 years after the fact, and knew how this Commission was well on its way to being fulfilled. A mix of persecution, catastrophic war, and missionary zeal had spread Christian communities through the core parts of the Roman Empire. Christianity was in Rome, the center of the empire, even before Paul writes his letter to the church there around AD 50. Even as all roads led to Rome, so also did all radiate from there. The merchant and military classes were particularly mobile in the ancient world, believers among them. Outside the empire, tradition credits the Ethiopian eunuch of Acts 9 with taking the gospel into Africa, and the apostle Thomas with founding the church in India that carries his name to this day.
Sharing the the Good News is in Christianity’s DNA. The Bible reminds us “Whenever anyone asks you to speak of your hope, be ready to defend it. Yet do this with respectful humility.” [1 Peter 4:15-16] Sometimes we have not done it well, but at its best it is “one beggar telling another where to find bread.” I well remember being enthralled in college by stories from visiting missionaries, and we would make zealous commitments “To go wherever Christ calls us to go.” (All the while hoping that it wasn’t really the ends of the earth, we wanted electricity and running water!)
I was led into parish ministry. There were obstacles, I got tossed out of my first seminary for being gay. But I then met gay Christians who loved and nurtured and healed me, and later found Iliff in Denver that supported my reality and my call. After working in administration for Unitarian and Episcopal churches, I pastored for 15 years in the Metropolitan Community Church, founding congregations in Ft Collins and Cheyenne.
I learned that following God’s call isn’t an exercise in tea-leaf readings, casting fleeces, or trying to see behind the clouds. I don’t think God’s will is this pinpoint thing that God coyly hides from us and if we can’t figure it out our life is ruined. Rather it was listening to my heart, the advice of people I trust, and prayer to nurture the wide context of my faith. Trying some things and failing or succeeding. God treats us as adults, asks us to use our mind, heart and community to weigh options, giving us choices between good things. For myself, I found that those times I forced myself into something with sharp elbows and big ego did not usually turn out well. Instead I learned that finding God’s will is usually unassuming and straightforward.
My call to Plymouth is a perfect example: after Julie left as Director of Christian Ed to pursue her PhD, I was chatting one day in Hal’s office. I’d been on the Adult Ed Committee and then chair for a couple years. I’d been retired on disability due to my health for a while, and that grated on me terribly; I missed active ministry. I’d been exploring the UCC, taken history and polity courses, and was considering transferring my ordination. So Hal asks me, “How would you like to lead an adult education program like Plymouth’s?” Knowing that Plymouth had a policy against hiring members, I had not considered applying for Julie’s job. So I’m wondering, “Where around here has an education program like Plymouth’s?” … “Is there was a good program at like Windsor or Loveland or Greeley?” “No,” Hal said, “I mean here,” and after I got over my surprise, this new call was off and running.
This has been such a wonderful ministry you have let me do. It has been so satisfying to teach, mange, learn and explore with you. No, we did not figure out the Trinity. We did not solve homelessness. We don’t understand the Bible, or Jesus or God. We have yet to build the world of peace and justice and welcome and inclusion and care and love that we know God keeps leading us towards. But we have worked together towards all these things.
I can’t take credit for it all. I built on a long-standing program built by Alice Clark, Julie Mavity-Maddalena and many adult education committees. More deeply, the roots of the program come from this church’s conviction that Christian Formation goes through our entire lives. It isn’t like you go through Sunday school and get confirmed, get a diploma and are done. You’re barely beginning! This church knows that whether a person is 9 or 90 that there is yet more.
Sometimes it is head-learning, a core of information about what it is to be Christian, good info about the Bible and history and tradition. There are skills to be learned to weigh truth claims, consider evidence, and how to read our sacred texts in context. All that information helps shape beliefs, but we have come to understand that beliefs are only tools. Sometimes we build on them, sometimes we change them, some we even have to unlearn (God as old white man or Bible as science book, anyone?) We realize that there is much more to following Christ than beliefs about him. Beliefs are important, but they are not the goal.
It also takes heart-learning. This is a lifelong quest for me, to bridge head and heart, and you have played an important role in helping me with that. So we let ourselves (oh my, the terrible word my therapist keeps taunting me with) – FEEL. We learn how the Spirit molds our heart, how healthy Christian community keeps us grounded, we dare to let ourselves grieve and enjoy and fear and thrill and love. A lot of this is caught rather than taught, but we create good places for it to be caught – frank discussions, walking labyrinths together, doing lectio divina in small groups, listening so that we “bear one another’s burdens.” “How is it with your soul” is a question we should ask each other more often.
All this would be incomplete however if it just left us with heads crammed full of theology and Bible, and hearts all warm with fellowship and the Spirit if it did not get our hands and feet dirty. Some of the best times have been when we have done an educational series on a topic and then it was manifest in the outer world as action. Social action has to be grounded in clear, fact-driven analysis of a situation. And social action has to be sustained by a core of spiritual heart and practice “to keep on keeping on.” You don’t hear the Black Lives Matter protesters singing Justin Bieber. They sing spirituals. Sweet Honey in the Rock’s Ella’s Song, gives us a window into what is sustainable Christian Formation in our time:
“We who believe in freedom cannot rest
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes
“Until the killing of black men, black mothers' sons
Is as important as the killing of white men, white mothers' sons
“That which touches me most
Is that I had a chance to work with people
Passing on to others that which was passed on to me.”1
“A chance to work with people, passing on to others that which has been passed on to me.” There are so many: you who have taught, you who have led discussions, forum moderators, you who tirelessly chased down political candidates for forums, you who reviewed books that you suggested for classes, you who have set up chairs or handled AV, so many of you who have been parts of boards, ministry teams, committees and projects, the scores of people who make the Visiting Scholar program so great (and btw, we have Eric Elnes on tap for November for an online program). Thank you.
So many of you enjoyed my classes and gave me encouragement – and some of you endured my less than stellar projects and gave me loving feedback (anyone remember Kathleen Ray’s ransom atonement book, “Deceiving the Devil”?). I love to teach, you taught me how to do it better, and having eager learners makes it a joy. Thank you.
And for the love and care and guidance you gave me quite outside my professional role, encouraging my continuing education; supporting my pilgrimages; praying me safely home from Jordan; being patient when my health challenges flared up. Thank you. You have made me welcome in your homes, on retreat at LaForet, over a hundred cups of coffee -- you have let me into your lives and hearts. Thank you.
Now God is leading me to a new ministry – as an interim pastor for a medium sized church a half days’ drive away (I can tell you where in another week or so). I am about equal parts excited and terrified. It will take everything I’ve learned in 30 years of ordained ministry – and all you have poured into my mind and heart these past years will so help that church.
So let me end by remembering todays epistle reading:
“Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell. Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss.” (Maybe now that is a virtual kiss!)
“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” [2 Cor. 13:11-13]
Or as I like to say: God loves you today too. Go live accordingly!
from the album “We Are All… Every One of Us” (© 1983).
Listen to it here:
Remembrance, Invitation & direction
Great Thanksgiving & Epiclesis
We give you thanks, O Great and Loving Creator,
For creating a beautiful yet complicated world,
And placing us in it as stewards and participants.
We are glad that you sent Jesus to show us who you are
And how human life can fulfill your quest for justice and peace.
We thank you for gathering us as your church
Bound together always by the Holy Spirit
And connected today by the ingenuity of human technology.
Now Holy God, spread your Spirit upon these gifts of food and drink
Wherever we may be
that they might be for us the presence of the living Christ,
Making us one across time and space.
Spread your Spirit upon us,
so that like these communion elements
We too might be taken, blessed, broken and shared,
so that others might know the blessings
of living in communion with you and one another.
Through Christ, with Christ and in Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
all glory and honor are yours Almighty God, now and forever.
Words of Institution
Welcome to the table
God who hears the cry of the poor and oppressed:
You have always been with us --
When we were slaves in Egypt,
When in exile in Babylon,
When under the power of empires, despots and tyrants,
When divided into factions and set against each other,
You are a God who rescues.
You came to us in Jesus, who blessed the poor and powerless
Walked the way of the Cross – and invites us to join him.
So we lift our hearts to you in these troubled times:
You know the violence that has oppressed our African American neighbors
For hundreds of years.
Violence that changed legal forms
But still kept them scared and poor and hurt and killed.
Now we have seen with our own eyes
How agents of government casually kill them
And then provoke violence and harshly suppress peaceful protest.
We’ve always known these things, but the scales have fallen from our eyes.
We have seen how police supported by our own taxes
Managed by officials we elect
And armed with surplus from our bloated military
Walk the way of empire,
Sometimes benefiting us, and sometimes hurting us,
But consistently keeping black people, brown people, queer people, female people, poor people many other people disadvantaged, silenced and disposable.
We feel sad. We feel angry. We feel confused. We feel guilty. We feel powerless. But we are committed to follow You.
O, that you would tear wide the heavens and come down! Give ear to the chants of your people! Let the outcry come before you!
Save the unjustly imprisoned! Heal the injured! Cast down the mighty from their thrones, and lift up the lowly! Fill the hungry with good things, and make the rich share their hoardings!
Give us eyes to see the truth of our society, and the hearts to bear that truth. Keep those who march safe, and keep us safe when we join them. Give us the sense to listen most to those who suffer the most, and then follow with our voices, wallets and votes. Give us Christ-like courage to use our privilege to dismantle the systems that oppress the many to the benefit of the few, even when we are among the few.
Let us work for your kin-dom, as we pray week after week lifting the prayer Jesus taught us:
Our Father who art in heaven……
God loves you this week too, so go live accordingly.
So go into all the world:
In the love of God who created you,
The peace of Christ who redeemed you,
And the power of the Holy Spirit
Who will sustain you
Through everything. Amen.
This is Mark's final sermon at Plymouth as Dir. of Christian Formation for Adults. Mark brings a passion for Christian education that bears fruit in social justice. He has had a lifelong fascination with theology, with a particular emphasis on how Biblical hermeneutics shape personal and political action. Prior to coming to Plymouth, Mark served as pastor for Metropolitan Community Churches in Fort Collins, Cheyenne, and Rapid City.