This week, I got to spend lots of time with young people at Vacation Bible School. There, we were learning about how to be superheroes. We were helping out with a Hero Hotline, where superheroes would call in because they were facing big problems. Then we would spend our morning learning about different Bible stories that helped these heroes in their tough situations. And we had lots of fun making crafts, singing songs, dancing, and playing games.
This weekend, I got to spend lots of time with not-as-young people at the Annual Rocky Mountain Conference Meeting. I got to meet tons of UCC people from all over Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming. There, we did lots of work talking about some problems we’re facing in the world and as a Church. And we also had lots of fun singing songs, participating in worship, and making good connections.
The size of the harvest is bigger than you can imagine, but there are few workers.
Therefore, plead with the Lord of the harvest to send out workers for his harvest.
I saw so many of God’s workers this last week. I see so many of God’s workers right now! Throughout this morning, I will say: Where are the workers? And I want you all to say: We’re right here! Got it? Let’s practice. Where are the workers? (We’re right here!) Where are the workers? (We’re right here!) Wow, listen to that. So what could Jesus possibly mean when he says there aren’t enough workers for the harvest? I want to explore together what I think Jesus might be getting at here.
Where are the workers? (We’re right here!)
I want to start by pointing out that in this passage, we first see Jesus teaching and healing. By the end of this passage, we see the disciples doing the same things Jesus did. So I think maybe the “workers” are people who are committed to doing the stuff Jesus did - or the stuff Jesus wanted.
Where are the workers? (We’re right here!)
So why does Jesus say that the workers are few? I think it’s because there are not always enough of us who are REALLY digging into doing the work. We are tired. We are worn out. Maybe we don’t know where to start. Maybe we feel like our work isn’t actually working. Maybe we don’t know how to be helpful or how to change things for the better because it’s hard to see a world that can get better. It’s hard to see how to heal our divides. It’s hard to know the right answers.
So what do we need? In order to do good work, what do we need? I think we need to know three things: REST - Jesus took naps, even and especially when everything around him was a little bonkers, PLAY - Jesus spent a lot of time enjoying food and fellowship with lots of people, including his closest friends, and LIBERATION. Okay, that one’s a big word. Can you say liberation? (liberation)
Liberation theology is focused on giving freedom and power to ALL people, especially our most vulnerable people. Liberation theologians are asking this question: How do I do the work of salvation and liberation in the present, in the now? Because the kingdom of God is here & now.
Rest. Play. Liberation.
You’ve all been given a piece of construction paper. I want you to draw yourself engaging in this work. Draw yourself resting or playing or liberating - whatever you feel that might mean for you. Feel free to draw while you listen. You - person of God - are made to do God’s work. We - people of God - do that work all together. So I want you to draw yourself resting or playing or liberating, and we will put all these pictures together to show off what we create in our community.
Where are the workers? (We’re right here!)
In the book of James, it is written that pure religion cares for orphans and widows. God takes care of those with the least amount of power in society!! And the work of God - the work of Jesus - requires us to do that too. I believe that children and youth are a vulnerable population - perhaps one of the more vulnerable populations here at Plymouth. This is why I am passionate about faith formation. This is why I am passionate about worship with kids and youth. And this is why I am passionate about CROSS-GENERATIONAL worship experiences.
CROSS-GENERATIONAL is a little different from our usual buzzwords like intergenerational or multi-generational. We can have different generations in the same room - and we do that every Sunday - and call ourselves “intergenerational.” But are we reaching ACROSS the generations? Friends over 60, do you have friends who are 6? Or friends who are 16? Do you know their names? Research tells us that students who grow up with ten adults in church who know their name are exponentially more likely to stay in church when they become adults themselves.
Where are the workers? (We’re right here!)
I also like using “cross-generational” because it throws in a cute little reminder of Jesus’ work - specifically the work of the cross. This last quarter, I read a book for school called Spirit and Capital in an Age of Inequality, and in that book, I found this gem: “Jesus’ invitation to take up the cross and follow him involves the constitution of a community where leaders are cultivated, power is distributed and new forms of kinship disrupt the dominant political economy.”
Church, what if we made cross-generational friendships, distributed power across our age gaps, and cultivated leadership from our youngest friends? I think we would learn how to play. I think we would remember how important it is to take naps and get all the rest we need. I think liberating my young friends in our church community would also liberate us not-as-young friends.
Where are the workers? (We’re right here!)
You received without having to pay. Therefore, give without demanding payment.
What God gives us - we should give just as extravagantly. So here is my next question: Where is God sending the workers? Where is God sending us? I would love for us to get really creative - to use our imaginations - and to dream about our collective vocation and our communal orientation. Where is God sending Plymouth? Where are we being invited to create spaces for rest, play, and liberation? Where are we called to work?
Maybe you are feeling called to volunteer with Christian Formation - with youth group or with Godly Play. Maybe you want to sing in the choir. Maybe you would be interested in getting a fellowship group started that’s focused on community activism. Or maybe you want to help out with our booth at Fort Collins Pride. I would love to see Plymouth inviting kids and youth onto different boards or ministry teams - letting their voices and perspectives help to lead the future of our church. I would love to see cross-generational relationships and engagement that changes the way we show up for each other and that reminds us how to PLAY together. I would love to see Plymouth be a place of respite and healing for all kinds of people - and right now I think especially of black and indigenous people of color who have been harmed by white supremacy, and I think of LGBTQIA+ people who have experienced anything but love from the Church. I would love to see us, living out of wholeness and well-rested spirits, bringing healing and wholeness to the world around us.
“Not to a Congregation of the Sinless”
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning, Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
June 11, 2023
Who does Jesus eat with, and why? An observant first-century Jew should be eating only at a kosher table with people who are socially acceptable and who are not ritually impure. And yet we know who Jesus hung out with. It wasn’t the well-to-do or the religious establishment, and it certainly wasn’t the Roman imperial occupiers of the Jewish homeland.
The gospel writer tells us that Jesus is under fire for sharing the table with sinners and tax collectors. It’s important to know that tax collectors were not simply IRS agents who were doing the work of the federal government in getting everyone to pay their fair share of the tax burden. Instead, tax collectors in this case were Jews who made their money by collaborating with the Roman occupiers. That isn’t a good start, but it gets better: they essentially extorted money from people on the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder, handing over a portion of the money they collected and keeping some of it for themselves. They were despised by most of those under Roman occupation.
The other category is “sinners.” Temple Judaism in the first century was centered around purity codes that had paths of practice to cleanse one of sin and become ritually clean, and you can read about them in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers.
But don’t all of us commit sin? Don’t we miss the mark as we try to live good and worthy lives? Things that push our relationship with God out of kilter? Of course we do! In our membership covenant response we say, “We warmly welcome you not to a congregation of the sinless, but to a living community of faith that seeks together to find new ways of being in relationship with God and enacting God’s intention for the wholeness of humankind.”
When was the last time you sat down and really considered how you yourself and we together as a church were finding “new ways of being in relationship with God and enacting God’s intention for the wholeness of humankind?” Later in this sermon, I’m going to pose three questions about that, along with an invitation to do some wrestling.
I have a hunch that many of us think that we are pretty set with the second phase of our mission statement that calls us to inviting, transforming, and sending. Do you think you are done with your own transformation as a follower of Jesus? Have any of us attained full enlightenment?
We don’t talk very much about our own spiritual transformation at Plymouth, and I think perhaps we need to work a bit more on our growth and (to use a very old-fashioned word) discipleship. A disciple is nothing more than a student following a master, and we follow Jesus. If we don’t work together on our spiritual lives, where else is that going to happen?
St. John Chrysostom, a bishop of the fourth century said, “The church is a hospital, not a courtroom, for souls. She does not condemn on behalf of sins, but grants remission of sins.” Think about that hospital metaphor in light of what Jesus said: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” I’m going to make a bold assumption in saying that there is no one here who is entirely well or whole. We all need healing and growth. We all need a teacher and a physician. And we need a community to help us along the way.
As I was writing this week, I became curious about what other Christians might see as marks of discipleship or learning. If you want to see a diversity of opinion, try googling “key marks of discipleship” and see what it yields. It wasn’t terribly useful for our purposes, since they all came from organizations whose theology we would be unlikely to support.
But that doesn’t mean that we can’t or shouldn’t have ideas about ways that we can grow in our relationship with God. And as those who try to follow Christ, the best source seems to be Jesus himself. In the text this morning, Jesus quotes the prophet Hosea, instructing his disciples to “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire compassion, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” The great Jesus scholar Marcus Borg, Plymouth’s first Visiting Scholar, said that Jesus deliberately replaced the centrality of purity as a key aspect of religious practice with compassion, and I think this is a clear example of that. God doesn’t need burnt offerings of doves or sheep; God’s deepest desire for us is to act compassionately toward one another.
Living with compassion is harder than it sounds. It implies that we need to get out of our individualistic and even familial mindset and be open to share the suffering of others. Compassion is costly…it isn’t free, and it isn’t easy. We have to be willing to sacrifice some part of our well-being in order to help others. And that is countercultural in our society.
Many of Jesus’ clearest (and hardest) teachings are enumerated in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s gospel, so isn’t that a logical place to look for clues about what we need to learn as disciples?
The Beatitudes hold up as blessed those who are poor in spirit, who mourn, the meek, those who hunger for justice, who show compassion, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those persecuted for the sake of justice, and those who are rejected on account of following Jesus.
As disciples, some of us here today fall into one or more of those categories. I know some of you who are mourning, others who are meek, and some who hunger for justice. So, what about the rest of us? If a particular beatitude doesn’t apply to us, perhaps we are meant to be a support and a blessing to those Jesus lists. We can support the peacemakers, lift up the poor in spirit, and show compassion.
When the crowd asks Jesus how they should pray, he tells them not to wail aloud like the hypocrites who pray to be seen by others, instead he offers them the prayer we offer each Sunday, the Lord’s Prayer. Have you even noticed that in the Lord’s Prayer we pray twice for the inbreaking of the realm of God? And that it speaks about God’s abundance and debt forgiveness?
Perhaps the first question we should ask ourselves as disciples, learners is Who am I in relation to God?
Jesus keeps on going in his sermon, encouraging his followers (us) to be even more concerned for justice and righteousness than others, to let go of anger, to avoid retaliation by turning the other cheek, to go the second mile, and to give to anyone who begs from you. He tells us not just to love the folks who already love you, but to love even our enemies.
A second question for us as learners seems to emerge: Who am I in relation to others? Think not just about your own family, but about your church, community, nation, and world. Our society is amazingly self-absorbed, which is fueled by consumer advertising. Consider the neighbors that surround you, near and far, and whether those relationships are expanding or contracting.
You may not realize it, but Jesus has a lot to say to us about abundance and wealth and how we use what is entrusted to us. He encourages us to be generous in our giving, but not to be showy about it. He tells us not to worry so much about our possessions or what we will eat or drink or wear. God provides in abundance and Jesus says, “strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” Jesus is clear that people like us cannot serve two masters: God and wealth. And he shares some uncommon wisdom with us, telling us not to store up treasures on earth. He tells us that where our treasure is, it is there that our hearts will be.
So, a third question arises for us as we move toward transforming our lives: Who am I in relation to abundance and wealth? Jesus says more about money than he does about love. Money is an important tool entrusted to us to help extend the realm or kingdom of God. How much time do you spend serving wealth?
So, those three questions are:
• Who am I in relation to God?
• Who am I in relation to others?
• Who am I in relation to abundance and wealth?
I think each one of us has a lot to learn on this lifelong journey of transformation. Part of what the church offers that no other institution can is that we get to wrestle with the tough stuff together. We are on the journey together. None of us gets it all right, but I think God appreciates our wrestling. May the path of discipleship be a blessing for you!
© 2023 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact email@example.com for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
Good morning. My name is John Karbula and my wife Julie and I have been members of Plymouth since 1996. We have both served on a variety of committees and raised both our daughters in the Plymouth community. I want to thank Hal and Marta for offering me this opportunity and say very clearly as well that I am grateful I don’t have to do this a couple times a month!
Let us be in the spirit of prayer and the spirit of the moment.
Reflecting upon the reading today from Genesis, I found myself thinking of seeds. I am an avid gardener, and as such also an avid composter. I have been blessed to take care of my gardens in my current home since 1992. In that time I have composted many hundreds of cubic yards of kitchen and garden material, and each and every spring I put it right back into the very earth from whence it came.
I love dirt. A native Iowan, I deeply remember the fragrance of wet earth after a spring rain. It seemed to me very deep and mysterious, the smell of life itself. I still love that smell. As I work in my gardens, I often take the dirt into my hands and breathe deeply, the ancient mysteries of the earth revealing themselves. Perhaps it is the very breath of God that one smells when holding a fertile handful of soil. Mysterious indeed.
And then come the seeds. After dressing the soil with aged compost, I work the earth lightly to form the furrows into which I gently scatter the small, dried remnants of last years harvest. In the old days, for most of human history, we carefully selected the best and strongest plants and stored the seeds in a cool dry place. Now of course, I buy my seeds at the local nursery – far less labor intensive! Still, what a thrill it is to open a packet of carrot or pea seeds: each a tiny universe, containing all the genetic material of its living history. Bean seeds are quite large, carrot seeds tiny. But each and every one is a whole world, a living bridge between gathering in the fall to planting in the spring.
And then the miracle happens. These tiny dried shells of plant material, sown with love and care into my beautiful, living soil, covered gently, watered carefully, then transform. It is no less a transformation to me than the very creation itself, a living plant pushing up shoots to the light, sending down roots into the bacteria and mycelium swimming in the soil. The roots feed the shoots, the sun and rain form the plant.
All summer long we have the joy of fresh produce on the table. It is a moment of intense gratitude when you go out on a warm July day, and gather the beans or the squash or the tomatoes, warm with the sun, gleaming and sleek, rinse them, slice them and present them for our sustenance and pleasure.
I come from a long line of gardeners. Just one generation before me, my grandparents, aunts and uncles were survival gardeners: they gardened to live through the winter. Long after it was a necessity my Grandmother Josephine and her sister, my great-Aunt Katie, would put of 60 or 70 quarts of tomatoes!
The family table in the summer in the house I grew up in in Iowa would groan with fresh produce on those warm summer evenings. Tomatoes, carrots, steaming bowls of green beans, summer squash, cucumbers, sleek and cool, sweet corn hot and fresh, slathered in butter and salt! Ah, such memories! Okay, enough, I’m getting hungry!
All from seeds. All from a deeply mysterious process of growth and death, of light and rain, of soil and minerals, the constant interaction between the plant and its surroundings. The joy of the pollinators as they do their part. And in the fall, by the way, the miracle of honey in my beehive!
Like many of us at Plymouth, I worship in many ways. I find the sacred in my long morning walks, hiking in the mountains, camping, fishing, hunting. Spending time with the friends and family I love. I find the sacred in our church community, in worship, in community activism, in working toward social justice.
And, for me, in my garden. For 31 years, I have sweated and toiled and loved my little patch of God’s good earth and my goodness, does it love me back. I love it all. Mowing the lawn, the smell of fresh mown grass like a prayer. Trimming my orchard in February, fertilizing it in May, then the miracle of peaches, apples and pears on the table in late summer and early fall. Freezing applesauce, opening up a container in January, another prayer. Smelling the soil, the plants, the trees on a late summer evening. The riot of flowers from the cutting garden bringing beauty, fragrance and peace to the house.
All of it from seeds. Such a humble beginning to bring such deep joy, such satisfying flavors, feeding my body and the bodies of friends and family with the fruits of my labor.
I would like to close today with a Mary Oliver poem. She is a favorite of mine and captures the mysteries and the beauty of nature in much of her prolific body of work. Here she is with What I Have Learned so Far:
Meditation is old and honorable, so why should I
not sit, every morning of my life... [read poem here]
My fellow members of Plymouth, now joined together but soon to go our separate ways, may the seeds of these humble reflections perhaps plant in your spirit a quiet moment of reflection to contemplate the many seeds in your life. May your harvest be bountiful. May your seeds fall upon fertile soil and may they serve to sustain you when you need them! Amen.