2 Kings 2.1-14
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
2Now the LORD was going to take Elijah up to heaven in a windstorm, and Elijah and Elisha were leaving Gilgal. 2Elijah said to Elisha, "Stay here, because the LORD has sent me to Bethel." But Elisha said, "As the LORD lives and as you live, I won't leave you." So they went down to Bethel. 3The group of prophets from Bethel came out to Elisha. These prophets said to Elisha, "Do you know that the LORD is going to take your master away from you today?"
Elisha said, "Yes, I know. Don't talk about it!" 4Elijah said, "Elisha, stay here, because the LORD has sent me to Jericho." But Elisha said, "As the LORD lives and as you live, I won't leave you." So they went to Jericho. 5The group of prophets from Jericho approached Elisha and said to him, "Do you know that the LORD is going to take your master away from you today?" He said, "Yes, I know. Don't talk about it!" 6Elijah said to Elisha, "Stay here, because the LORD has sent me to the Jordan." But Elisha said, "As the LORD lives and as you live, I won't leave you." So both of them went on together. 7Fifty members from the group of prophets also went along, but they stood at a distance. Both Elijah and Elisha stood beside the Jordan River. 8Elijah then took his [mantle, his prophet’s] coat, rolled it up, and hit the water. Then the water was divided in two! Both of them crossed over on dry ground. 9When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, "What do you want me to do for you before I'm taken away from you?" Elisha said, "Let me have twice your spirit." 10Elijah said, "You've made a difficult request. If you can see me when I'm taken from you, then it will be yours. If you don't see me, it won't happen." 11They were walking along, talking, when suddenly a fiery chariot and fiery horses appeared and separated the two of them. Then Elijah went to heaven in a windstorm. 12Elisha was watching, and he cried out, "Oh, my father, my father! Israel's chariots and its riders!" When he could no longer see him, Elisha [in his deep grief] took hold of his clothes and ripped them in two.
13Then Elisha picked up the mantle, the coat, that had fallen from Elijah. He went back and stood beside the banks of the Jordan River. 14He took the [mantle] that had fallen from Elijah and hit the water. He said, "Where is the LORD, Elijah's God?" And when he hit the water, it divided in two! Then Elisha crossed over. [And on the other side he began his new journey as the lead prophet of Israel.]
Bible, Common English. CEB Common English Bible with Apocrypha - eBook [ePub] (Kindle Locations 13113-13133).
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!
When I found this story in today’s lectionary texts, I was delighted to rediscover it and compelled to use it for my text. Delighted because it is a biblical story that I have told several times over the years. I love its drama of a journey toward the unknown, the mystical crossing of the river – twice! The dramatic image of the fiery chariots and horsemen or riders whisking Elijah into heaven in a whirlwind. I am moved by the humanity of the prophet, Elisha, as he deals with the impending departure/death of his mentor, his denial of the loss, his fierce loyalty, his grief and finally, his acceptance of a new role in the leadership of God’s people. I find the schools, the groups of prophets that nag him humorously and humanly irritating ….why do they need to rub it in that Elijah is not long for this world? Are they jealous of Elisha’s relationship with Elijah? Are they warning him about getting too caught up in the older prophet’s provocative ministry of social justice?
Beyond all these delightful storytelling speculations, I was compelled by the story because of the image of passing the mantle. Many of you have been in the bittersweet situation of anticipating retirement from a long-held profession, maybe wondering what legacy you leave? Most of us do not expect to be taken up into heaven by a whirlwind upon retirements.
Revisiting this story prompted me to ask myself, what is the mantle of ministry I will leave with this community when I leave the staff? I have some ideas and will share those over the coming months. I know that I am not a legendary, trouble-making prophet like Elijah. Far from it! I do not confront kings about their apostasy and challenge them to turn back to God. I have not raised a child from the dead as Elijah raised the son of the widow of Zarephath. I have not been given the foresight to prophesy the beginning and end of a long drought threatening the lives of the people. Those were Elijah’s calling, not mine. I do try to speak the word of the Holy One given to me each time I preach, to lead with integrity and to help us all discover the faith of that divine spark of light living within each of us.
My contemplation of passing a mantle went beyond myself to the whole of our community. I believe we have been passed a mantle of ministry in our communal experience of the last two years. The pandemic was a Big Pause that caused a Big Shift in the ministries of our church. It was a shift like the shifting of tectonic plates. We have a new landscape of ministry now. It is vaguely familiar and very unfamiliar all at once. Like it or not, we were passed the mantle of Change with all the opportunity and risks and invitations to imagination that change requires.
Elisha asked for a double portion of Elijah’s prophetic spirit so that he could pick up the mantle of the great prophet’s leadership. We did not ask for such a daunting gift…but we were handed it anyway. A great mantle of Change was draped over the shoulders of the church universal, not just Plymouth, by the great Pause of the pandemic during which we experienced the stark realities of a deathly virus sickening and killing so many along with a new view of the racism, the political and economic divisions in our country. Along with the epidemic of gun violence. Along with an urgent vision of the climate crisis and our responsibilities toward our mother, Earth. Like it or not, we received a double portion of the Holy Spirit’s challenge to Change. So much so that it is dizzying and overwhelming at times. As Plymouth, our first inclination is to rush to help those affected by these seismic changes. This is what we did before the pandemic and it our passion to help the least of these and to advocate for justice.
Yet the double portion of the Holy Spirit’s challenge to holy change starts at home. What is the phrase? Think globally, act locally. Even as we are so very sensitive and responsive to the dramatic changes in the social justice landscape of our times, our ways of being church together and of being beloved community have to be tended and rebuilt as well for the sake of God’s realm here and now.
Wow, Jane Anne! I think you might be a bit caught up in the drama of this biblical legend….its not that Big, is it? We are gathering our programs and fellowship groups and outreach ministries and worship services back together despite the seemingly never-ending cycle of masking and unmasking and new rounds of vaccines.
Yes, we are picking our way through the changes of this tectonic shift. However, I believe that the Holy Spirit is calling us to a bigger challenge than trying to put the pieces of what we used to do back together with extra strength Elmer’s glue. The Holy Spirit is calling us to envision and build a new spirit of community that we have only yet glimpsed. This may entail leaving behind old programs or outdated ways of working if they no longer serve us. It will include new and unexpected ways of growing together in Christian formation, in service and even in fellowship. Along with the gift of a double portion of Holy Change comes a double portion of Holy Opportunity for greater Holy Imagination. Following the love and justice of Jesus in ways we might have never imagined before. Will we accept this powerful mantle, this double portion of Change, Opportunity and Imagination? Or will we leave it lying on the ground because we are too afraid to pick it up?
If we do not tend to the opportunity for holy change in our church – and some of the changes will be small and some large and most will be in between – then the church will not be here, healthy and strong, for us to rely on in coming years. Our strength and stamina for social justice change, for all that life throws at us, comes from the Holy One who we discover within us in the midst of the Beloved Community. Even as we tend our own souls for the work we called to do, we must tend the soul, the body and structure of our church so that it is strong for the work God is calling us to do together. Self care.
What did Elisha do first at his moment of great change, before he picked up the mantle? He grieved and he mourned the loss of his beloved mentor, Elijah. He cried out in shock and pain. He tore his garments in two…a very common sign of mourning and grief in biblical times. He could not move forward until he acknowledged his grief and mourned. He let his heart break. We need to do the same.
Our hearts, as individuals and as a community, are breaking for so many reasons already – because of gun violence, because the violence against creation, because of the implications of undoing Roe versus Wade, because of so many things in our personal lives. Take a moment to acknowledge these griefs. Griefs are never separate from one another. They build upon one another. New grief brings up old grief. And know that each breaking heart, each wounded soul in this room is precious to the Holy One.
As you acknowledge your personal grief, turn to what is breaking your heart because of the changes forced upon our church community by the pandemic? (Or if you were not have with Plymouth through the pandemic, what breaks your heart about your pandemic experience ?) The loss of friends who have found another community for worship? The loss of being able to attend the memorial service of a congregation friend or a friend’s family member? The many days of isolation? The sense of disconnection that still lingers? The loss of socialization and community for your children and youth? Is anger coming up instead of heart break? Anger comes with grief. If you feel angry that’s okay.
Take a long moment here in the safety of this sanctuary to let your heart break. If tears come, let them flow. If rage comes, clench and unclench your hands so you can let it move through your system. Our bodies are holding so much heart break and they need release. Hold your hands in front of you, cupped and turned up. Put your griefs into your hands and offer them to God. (Long pause……. 90 seconds.)
Take some deep breaths. Shake it out. Hold your hands in front of you again Now take a moment to remember all the things you are grateful for in our life together as a beloved community. In your life in the world. What makes your heart sing with gratitude? Hold these things in your hands. Offer them to the Holy One. Hold them in your heart. (Pause ….. 60 seconds)
Deep breath. Open your eyes gently. Come back to this space consciously. I hope you will reflect on these last moments at some time during the day or week ahead. I encourage you to share what came up for you with a partner, a friend, your journal. We cannot move effectively into our new Holy Spirit challenge of Change unless we first move through the sludge of our grief. We will get stuck if we don’t acknowledge what we feel. This process of grief and mourning goes hand in hand with visioning and imagining new actions of justice and building anew. Grief and gratitude never happen in a linear narrative. We will be spiraling through acknowledging our grief and moving into God’s newness for years to come. That is how life works.
As I end this morning, I leave you with a question I have borrowed from marine biologist and social justice activist, Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: “What if we get it right?” As we pick up this double portion of God’s Holy Spirit calling us to Change, can we let ourselves be led by what we already know how to do, and by what we have it in us to save? How do we run full-tilt towards what we love and what delights us about our life together as the Body of Christ? Guided by the holy work of our strategic plan as well as the holy surprises of the Spirit, let’s us take up the mantle of change and imagine our church community in the future through the question, “What if we get it right?” Amen.
©The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, 2022 and beyond. May be reprinted with permission only.
Liberation into Life
A post- Pentecost sermon related to Psalm 146:5-9
The person whose help is the God of Jacob--
the person whose hope rests on the Lord their God--
is truly happy!
6 God: the maker of heaven and earth,
the sea, and all that is in them,
God: who is faithful forever,
7 who gives justice to people who are oppressed,
who gives bread to people who are starving!
The Lord: who frees prisoners.
8 The Lord: who makes the blind see.
The Lord: who straightens up those who are bent low.
The Lord: who loves the righteous.
9 The Lord: who protects immigrants,
who helps orphans and widows,
but who makes the way of the wicked twist and turn!
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
Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen is a physician, an elder, and an author known by many for her books Kitchen Table Wisdom and My Grandfather’s Blessings. She shares the story of a story, a story of her grandfather, a Jewish mystic, who told her on her 4th birthday a story of the birthday of the world from the Kabbalah, the ancient Jewish mystic text. As the ancient story goes, there first was only the Divine Presence as the Holy Darkness, the ein sof. Then this Holy Darkness birthed a great ray of light…. But, as she tells it, then there was an accident and the light was shattered and scattered into countless shards which fell into all things and all events, though deeply hidden. Humanity is here to find that light, to lift it up and restore the innate unity and wholeness of the world. This great project of purpose is known in Judaism in Hebrew as tikkun olam, the restoration of the world. Tikkun olam is a collective task in which all humanity is called to participate. Tikkun olam, the restoration of the world. Beautiful.
Woven into the stories of humanity and even into our some of our Scriptures are stories that forget the original and ultimate unity of Life, and therefore the unity of humanity, the unity of Creation, and instead act out a story of separation, an illusion of separation where the unlikeness, the differences, become primary and set the stage for preferences, ranking, and suspicion and put us on the road to de-humanizing or objectifying the other or even ourselves. We forget who we are as a part of a great circle, and what the world is as a whole.
Indeed, there are many expressions of the illusion of separation and several are mentioned in our text for this morning, Psalm 146. Did you hear them mentioned? Oppression, imprisonment, hunger, burden, estrangement.
This is where God and where the activity and invitation of the Divine come in to meet these degraded and life-draining conditions with something else, with the antidote from the consequences of separated living: liberation. Liberation back into freedom and dignity of being a Divine spark of Creation. Liberation into the enlivening connection, blessing, and responsibility of Life’s unity as we serve and honor that of which we are a part. Liberation leads to Life.
Here’s another ancient Jewish story to help us along.
The water started at his ankles, but then he went further in.
Up to his knees……. and then thighs….. and then waist.
Behind him, his people stood watching, curious and anxious. And behind them, close enough to see in the distance, the Pharoah of Egypt and his troops in pressing pursuit.
And here he was, Nachson ben Aminidav, walking into the water. You see he had been told that God would act, that there was a way through, even though there seemed no way. Despite the inspiring victory of his people leaving their slave camps just a while ago, they were a long way from their hoped for Promised Land. And now, faced with the sea in front of them and the pursuing slave masters behind them, the people were trapped, in a tight jam, you might say.
In fact, that is what is implied in Hebrew where the word for Egypt, Mitzrayim, is a sound play with the word meitzarem which means a tight space, narrow straits.
So the people found themselves in a tight jam, with seemingly with no way through. But Moses had said that God would act and the waters would part, yet the waters hadn’t parted, and so Nachson went into the water, faithfully, hopefully. Further in he went, waters rising, ever rising. Past his waist, up to his chest and over his shoulders. But he kept going, right up to his nostrils the waters came. And then, only then, when the waters threatened to cut off his very breath of life did the waters begin to separate, allowing the people to cross and find a way through their tight jam into the spacious liberation on the other side.
This Jewish story from the midrash, the ancient Jewish commentary on the Scriptures, illustrates that acts of initiative that involve risk and discomfort are part of our co-creative task if we are to realize liberation that gives life.
Psychotherapist Estelle Frankel draws on her Jewish heritage in her book Sacred Therapy and sees in the Exodus story a description of the psyche’s journey to liberation. And on that journey, we come to places of particular tightness and narrowness, of seemingly no way through, places of constriction and contraction. And so we, too, like those Hebrews, in order to further the passage of life from bondage and contraction and restriction into freedom and dignity, into love and life will sometimes need to get in up to our nostrils before Spirit’s liberating movement is evident, before the signs of passage or transformation even begin to emerge. Making those steps is a creative act of trust, of faith.
It’s not possible to faithfully engage our tradition and teaching without engaging the great myth of the Exodus story. Foundational for Judaism and for Christianity, it is a deep human story reminding us of the deep longing of life for liberation and the journey that is taken to realize it.
And that liberation in the Scriptural saga is both internal and external. As the old Hasidic saying goes: It was not enough to take the Jews out of Egypt. It was necessary to take Egypt out of the Jews. There is an ongoing internal journey to liberation for all of us.
And, liberation is external. Our tradition and certainly the Divine teaching and witness of Jesus was to alter the situation of suffering that a person was in. Whether through healing an illness or injury, or through bringing someone back into community, or teaching a freeing truth to affect a situation, Jesus liberated people from the external situation they were in, helped to change their external circumstance. So often, the internal and external are linked. In the Jesus stories and in the Exodus saga, those liberating changes came with actions born of faith, born of an internal orientation of trust and vision, a willingness and a kind of courage to step out in faith. So often Jesus would say, "Your faith has made you well."
In the midrash story we just heard, one wonders what was it that led Nachson into the water, all the way up to his nostrils. I might imagine that in him somewhere deep down there was a vision of what liberation might feel and look like, and a desire, a determination, a longing to taste it. My spiritual hunch here is that this comes from the piece of the Divine planted in each of us. Maybe it’s like an image, or a spark, or as the ancient Jewish story says, a shard of Divine light.
In these times, do we still have that vision alive in our hearts? Do we lose our heart of vision, our faithful imagination?
Is it too painful to remember God’s Dream for us all, too easy to be cynical rather than vulnerable to being broken hearted?
Theologian Robert McAfee Brown notes that one of the core elements of liberation theology is hope, the hope that generates the sense of possibility that things can be different, that we are not fated to a forever of injustice and suffering. The poet Wendell Berry’s says “be joyful though you have considered all the facts.”
I think Spirit, when we really tap into her flow, inspires that kind of knowing and joy. I think that kind of faithful inspiration is what is coming through the Psalmist of our Scripture reading today. Psalm 146 begins with praise, high praise that comes from that flow of joy in the vision of liberation; prisoners set free, sight to the blind, food to the hungry, justice for the oppressed, inclusion for those pushed out and forgotten. Ah, what joy that is and will be!
The Psalmist bears witness to the GodMystery whose business is liberation. The Spirit whose enduring presence and movement and love opens up space, makes a way in the midst of tight straits, in the midst of our contraction of disappointment and anxiety, or fear and hard heartedness.
Poet and great elder Maya Angelou said simply that “love liberates.”
She ought to know. Maya was sexually assaulted as a child by a man. When she told, that perpetrator was found dead some days later. Some say her uncles did it. She thought she had killed him by speaking. So she didn’t speak. For six years. And while other children called her dumb and a moron for being mute, her grandmother just kept telling her, “Sister, I don’t care what they say. When you and the Good Lord decide it’s time, you will be a teacher.”
It is the God of Love, the Spirit of Love that comes through people like Maya Angelou’s grandmother, that liberates, that sees hope and possibility, and, like Nachson, the one who entered the sea up to his nostrils, that has the courage to act and to endure in faith. We all have that Divine Spark in us, that place that already knows what liberation is, what our deep Divine unity is. And every time we nurture, magnify, and listen to that place in us and in others and in Creation, we will have the vision and heart and Resurrection faith to walk into the waters of our liberation and our re-union.
Today is a holiday of liberation. It’s June 19th aka Juneteenth. Juneteenth commemorates the occasion of some Africans’, and their descendants’, enslaved in America, learning of their emancipation on a June day in 1865 in Galveston, Texas. Juneteenth was proclaimed a federal holiday in 2021 by President Biden. This designation introduced the Juneteenth holiday to a wider American audience, although the holiday has been celebrated for over 150 years among some African Americans.
Racism is one of the most effective ways to keep us in a story of separation, to keep us from God’s Liberating, life-giving Presence. It’s bad for people of color and for white people. And racism doesn’t have to look like burning crosses and crazy people with guns, though we know all too well it is still violent and lethal for people of color.
Sometimes racism works effectively by simply sidelining and ignoring. I had never heard of Juneteenth until a few years ago because Eurocentric, white culture was so deeply centered in so much of my education and exposure and relationships. Racism also works in subconsciously. Only in retrospect did I realize, in my hometown where there were a number of people of color, even a few in positions of authority, that our town probably would not have stood for any more in leadership and probably expected them to be more perfect. Nobody told me this explicitly, but, somehow I absorbed it. I knew it. This is racism and a form of oppression, holding down, holding back, a form of separating.
There is not enough time this morning to go further in this specific form of painful separation known as racism except to say, my friends, that for most of us there is a lot more wading into the waters of awareness about the subtle and powerful ways that white supremacy continues to live in us and in our community. And, let us be clear, white supremacy is in opposition to the liberating God of Jesus and to the ongoing project of Liberation that God is ever about. I’m happy to be in the ongoing discussion and practice of liberating ourselves from racism and to recommend further resources.
One practice is simply to acknowledge what has not been acknowledged: Today is Juneteenth and to learn about it. And tomorrow is World Refugee Day. Both days are about liberation, aren’t they? Like those enslaved who sought refuge from it, all those seeking refuge whom we call refugees are those in a tight space seeking enough security and enough resources to be liberated for a new life. I am so glad that we as a congregation are joining others in supporting the Jan family who came to Fort Collins from Afghanistan. As mentioned, COVID visited the Jan household this previous week so we will postpone our reception for them until this fall. But our work of serving their lives and liberation continues. May they travel further on the path of liberation.
So this morning, the invitation of faith, the way to being an Easter People, a people of the Holy Spirit, offered is to celebrate the Liberating Spirit of God, the Maker of Heaven and earth, and to firmly hold the Divine vision of liberation and deep unity. And then to act, to follow Nachson right into the waters, up to your nostrils, if necessary, so that Creation and all people might reach the other side, so that we might participate in tikkun olam, the restoration of the world.
On this Juneteenth Day, let us ask ourselves how we might participate in God’s liberating movement and let us pray for the guidance, vision, vulnerability, and strength to do so.
Lay Sermon from the Outdoor service on June 12, 2022
Before the world was created, the Word already existed; he was with God, and he was the same as God. From the very beginning the Word was with God. Through him God made all things; not one thing in creation was made without him. The word was the source of life, and this life brought light to humankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has ever put it out. John 1:1-5.
When I was in college, I was a lay pastor for four small Congregational/UCC churches in northeast South Dakota. And then I spent over thirty years as an English teacher. When I retired from teaching, I then served eight years in the South Dakota House of Representatives. One thing I learned from my years in these professions is “Don’t give a mike to a retired preachers, teachers, or politicians. They won’t give it back.”
So I appreciate your being here today, and I admire your courage and tolerance.
When I was teaching composition, I sometimes allowed the student to write about anything they wanted to write about. Inevitably, there would be students who said that they didn’t have anything to write about. And I would respond with, “Oh yes you do. You always can write about why you don’t have anything to write about, or you can write about writing.”
And I have applied this approach to my creating this sermon: I am giving a sermon on sermons.
I knew what I was going to talk about, but I was wondering what I should use for the scripture. My first inclination was to use part of the Sermon on the Mount, and then talk about how one should prepare for listening to the Sermon on the Mount.
[Bill’s cellphone rings. With great embarrassment, he apologizes and answers his phone.] “Hello? . . .Oh, hello, God. How are you? . . .Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. I hope that things get better. . . .Actually, it’s not a good time to talk. I’m kinda busy right now. Can you call me back this afternoon? . . .OK. Great! I’ll talk with you then. Love you. Goodbye.”
Where was I? Oh, yes, the Sermon on the Mount.
But I concluded that such a sermon would be rather short. My suggestions are to arrive early so that you can sit in the front row, and bring some fishes and loaves of bread. Those of you who are biblical scholars are raising your eyebrows, for I have conflated two different stories of Jesus.
And then I thought about the beginning of the Gospel of John because it talks about the Word. That scripture always has been a little puzzling to me. It seems that “the Word” is a metaphor for Jesus, but why? I gained a little insight when I read that Spanish translations use “the Verb” instead of “the Word.” I like that because in English we talk about transitive and intransitive verbs: “A transitive verb is one that only makes sense if it exerts its action on an object (‘I hit the ball’). An intransitive verb will make sense without one. (‘I am’ or ‘I am hungry’). I like “the Verb” because it implies that Jesus not only exists but also is a man of action.
When English teachers talk about communication, we often talk about active communication (speaking and writing) and passive communication (listening and reading. So giving a sermon is active communication, and listening to a sermon is passive communication. But even passive communication is active, but just not as active. And what I want to share with you this morning are some things that you can do to help you listen to a sermon, to help you understand a sermon.
The first thing you can do is to anticipate what the sermon will be about.
On Saturday our church publishes online the scripture and sermon title for the service the next day. Read the scripture, apply it to the title of the sermon, and imagine what the sermon will say. You are getting ready to hear the sermon.
On Sunday morning before church, a daily devotional may help you listen to the sermon. I like the UCC’s “Still Speaking Daily Devotional.” If our pastor and the writer of the devotional are using the liturgical calendar, the devotional and the sermon may have the same scripture. You will have the opportunity to compare and contrast the sermon with the devotional.
And then there is the sermon itself. Try to clear your mind of your brain chatter. Perhaps our service should have a second Time of Centering Silence before the scripture and sermon.
And then listen for the main point, the thesis, of the sermon. And what are the points the pastor uses to support the thesis?
One way to be a more active listener is to take notes on your bulletin. I know several members who do. When our choir is a part of the service, you may see my wife, Anne, on her cellphone during the sermon. You may wonder what she is doing: texting, emailing, Googling? And you may think that she’s rather rude. Actually, Anne is taking notes. And she is writing her notes in linked haikus, which she shares with the pastors and others. She really has to concentrate to create her special poem. I prefer limericks. A limerick has different challenges, and it is known as a vehicle for bawdy humor. Here’s a limerick based on today’s scripture: “There once was an apostle named John/Who had an epiphany by a pond./’I suddenly heard/”In the beginning was the word.”/Dear God, I hoped I’m not conned.’”
And then after the service is time for reflection and discussion. Talk with the pastor about the sermon. Did you like it? Do you have questions? Do you have insights you would like to share with the pastor?
One of Jane Anne’s sermons included comments about the compact that God made with Noah after the flood, that God never again would destroy all living beings. After the service I pointed out to her that God was not quite that compassionate: “I promise that never again will all living beings be destroyed by a flood.” God still can punish through other means, such as fire, as referred to in the title of James Baldwin’s book The Fire Next Time. And as Coloradans, we especially should be concerned about the fire possibility.
In the summer of 1968, I was a counselor at a Presbyterian/UCC camp in the Black Hills. And on the Sunday morning before camp started, we counselors and deans trooped into First Presbyterian Church in Rapid City. And I remember that service long ago because the fellowship hour following the service started with a sermon talk back with the pastor. I don’t know if we should do this at Plymouth because we certainly are a bunch of talkers, and some of us would not leave church until the cows were coming home. But you can talk with other members during fellowship time. And if you have a lunch partner who heard the sermon, too, talk with that person, too.
I already am anticipating who will be giving the sermon in the park next summer and what the topic will be. And it will be in reaction to my sermon. Originally, I planned to have as my scripture only the first verse of the opening chapter of John. But as I read a little more, I decided to include the verses through “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never put it out.” I knew that Anne would bristle at that sentence, for she contends that darkness gets a bum rap in the Bible, that it deserves to be lauded also for all its benefits. So come back next year to hear what Anne has to say. And be an active listener.
So the holy trinity of listening to a sermon are anticipate, actively listen, and discuss.
That’s all I have to say, and I am happy to talk with you after the service and give you the last word. How’s that for ambiguity?
“E Pluribus Unum”
Acts of the Apostles 2.1–21
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC,
Fort Collins, Colorado
How many of us were raised in non-Christian traditions, including those who were raised in no tradition? How many were raised in the Roman Catholic or Orthodox Church? How many in evangelical or Pentecostal churches? How many Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopal, or other mainline churches? How many were raised in the Congregational churches or the Evangelical and Reformed Church before they became the UCC in 1957? And how many were raised in the UCC after the 1957 merger?
I ask that not to claim any kind of superiority for people raised in this tradition, but to show that we come from many different traditions, which reminds me of our nation’s motto, e pluribus unum, from many, one. We have come together in this place as a people seeking spiritual transformation. We may speak different theological languages that somehow, we need to interpret and hear. I don’t object to people referring to a sermon as a homily or the Lord’s Supper as the Eucharist or people saying “trespasses” instead of “debts.” Though we have come from many places, if we apply some effort, we will understand one another.
On Pentecost, the “birthday of the church,” I want to talk a bit about Ekklesia, the Greek word the New Testament uses to refer to the church. It comes from two roots, ek + kaleo, and it means those who are called out. But an ekklesia isn’t just called out; it also must come together. We as individuals have been called out to a faith journey of transformation, and we are called together as the church. Being church together changes us.
With all due respect to Rotary, the League of Women Voters, and United Way, we are different in form and substance. They all do cool things and raise money for worthy causes, but they are not the church. Your alma mater and NPR and PBS and other nonprofit organizations you may support do wonderful work, but they are not the church.
What makes the church different? At the most basic level, it is what you heard in the Pentecost text I just read. Our purpose is “to worship God and make God’s realm visible.” We are called. Not simply for our own enjoyment or sense of satisfaction or good feeling, but we are called to BE the church. Listen to the first covenantal promise each new member joining Plymouth makes: “I give myself unreservedly to God’s service.” By a show of hands, how many of you have joined Plymouth and made that covenant? How are you doing with keeping that covenant? Anyone got it down pat? Neither have I. It’s aspirational, isn’t it? But through our journey of transforming, hopefully we experience growth in offering ourselves to God’s service. Anne Lamott writes, “I do not at all understand the mystery of grace – only that it meets where we are but doesn’t leave us where it found us.”
The final covenantal promise we make as members is that we endeavor to make it a fruitful body of Christian people. What does that mean? First a few negative strokes: The New Testament says that unkindness, gossip, and self-centeredness are not helpful in building up the body of Christ. Anyone able to avoid those altogether? Neither am I. But we can work on it. What a fruitful body of Christian people DOES look like is a community where people gladly share with one another. Where people show up every week to prepare communion, greet you at the door, make coffee, collate your worship bulletin, teach our kids, keep the light bulbs changed and patch the roof, offer a warm welcome to guests they meet in worship, assist in setting up for a memorial service luncheon, operate the sound and video boards, ensure that we have events where people can connect with one another, organize parking in our lots, reach out to immigrants and refugees, build and maintain the memorial garden and labyrinth, trim trees and hedges and pick up litter, offer music that inspires, ask for your financial support in novel ways, support social justice efforts that other congregations can’t or won’t, welcome LGBTQ folks when other congregations can’t or won’t, march and demonstrate to end gun violence, discrimination, and to support keeping abortion safe, legal, and rare, serve one another as Stephen Ministers and Congregation Visitors, build homes with Habitat for Humanity, discern the strategic direction of our congregation, sing in our choir, ring handbells, provide lunch and connection for our senior-most members, start a new ministry team, provide meals to those recovering from illness, answer telephones and help in the office, provide emergency on-call coverage when pastors are away, offer financial support to members who are in need, provide flowers for worship, make difficult decisions about running our programs and congregation, do accounting and financial review, write personnel policy and conduct performance reviews. I’ve only named a fraction of what our volunteers do at Plymouth. And I apologize in advance if I didn’t name what you offer as a volunteer.
Why do you do this?! It’s counter-cultural to spend your time this way. Is it because you are part of this community that has been called out and brought together? Is it because it’s a way of showing your love for God? Is it because by serving others you are serving God? Being church is not easy, and it never has been. And it is critically important for God’s world that you bear the light of Christ. I thank you for sharing your light and being the church and your commitment to your faith.
Unlike any other organization I know, the church operates on a “gift economy,” not on a fee-for-service model. Beloved Community forms and shows up for one another generously. Unlike a synagogue, we don’t charge annual fees for membership…we leave it up to individuals to give as they are called to give. We offer our space free to 12-step meetings, who often make a gift in return. Can you imagine a landlord that would say, “Use the space and pay what you feel called to pay” or a university that said, “Pay what you want for tuition and a dorm room,” or a school district that said, “No need to vote for a bond issue, just give what you want voluntarily?” Or imagine a petroleum company that invited you to pull up to the pump and ask you for a gift for however much gasoline you use. This is how the “gift economy” of the church has worked for about 2,000 years. But church isn’t transactional in that way; it isn’t fee for service. Those of us with more to give share more. Those with smaller means give what they can and are balanced out by those with greater means.
And the gift economy works for voluntarism, too. Those who are able-bodied or who have time offer their labor for those who cannot. The gift economy is dependent upon generosity both financial and in terms of sharing our efforts. If either giving or service breaks down, there can be trouble in the way the system operates.
Years ago, I heard Peter Gomes, Minister of the Memorial Church at Harvard, say that people do not come to church because of what they might get but because of what they can give. Think about that. All of us engage seasons of giving and receiving, but our sense of individualism may cause us to ask, “What’s in it for me?” God doesn’t call us into the church because of what we get, but because of what we can give and what we can become together. And that takes hard work and sacrifice.
None of us becomes part of a church because we must, but because we may. We are called to live as Beloved Community, which is also a counter-cultural way of being in a nation that worships the individual (me and mine), not the collective (us and ours).
On that Pentecost so long ago, God called people from many different backgrounds and perspectives to become one. And on this day, we celebrate the church, our being called, and becoming one in Christ. Amen.
© 2022 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact email@example.com for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.