The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph
Plymouth Congregational Church
Fort Collins, Colorado
Mr. Rodgers once said, “Love is at the root of everything. Love and the lack of it.” He also once said to a friend of his, Fort Collins’ very own Rev. Rich Thompson, “If you cannot be near the ones your love, then love the ones you are near.”
Today, I am preaching my final sermon as a minister of this church, and so the advice of Mr. Rodgers is resonating especially strongly with me in this time of goodbyes. You have shared with me a love that will never let me go. I will no longer be near, but our ministry together will continue throughout my callings and ministries to come—however many God allows me.
For those of you who do not know, I wandered into this church as a recently-out gay evangelical high school student. I now leave you as clergy and member some sixteen years later, as a seasoned young minister: ordained, married, trained, and hopeful for the Church and the future. I will no longer be near this church that I have loved, but I promise to share the love I have learned here, as Mr. Rodgers suggests, with those whom I will be near in my ministries to come.
As we explore our Scripture, let us start with prayer. O God, grant us wisdom and understanding of this text, and may the words of my mouth and our collective meditations be good in your sight. Amen.
J’étais très jeune quand j’avais mon premier coup de coeur. I was very young when I first fell
in love. It is a love that has never since let me go. It is a love that has taught me everything I know. It is a love that will keep all of you and my Plymouth years with me always.
As early as I can remember, I have been in love with and infatuated by words and their power. It was this love of words that sustained me through the tortured years of mastering French verbs and syntaxes. It was that love that threw me into theological studies and seminary. It is with words, “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—One God and Mother of us all,” that we are Baptized into Christian Faith. It is with the words, “eat this bread and take this cup,” that we are sustained in our faith. It is words that have truly Ordained me to this work of walking with and being with you, called by the words of pastor, minister, and reverend. I love and fear words!
But it isn’t just the words in and of themselves for their own sake that I love. It is what we do with them. Words communicate, can build up, move, and shape history on their own, but they only truly find their power when words join their forces together in story. If words are the rivers (the sources/ springs) of meaning, then stories are the churning oceans of the Spiritual, Ritual, and purpose our lives.
Today, I want to share a Word with you as I leave you—a final benediction formed at the spring testimony.
As I have often preached about, I attended seminary in the Deep South in the woodlands of North Georgia. It is land where there are even more storytellers than there are pine trees. Even more than out here in the West where we have the history of campfire storytelling, story is what holds Southern Christianity and identity together. Story and testimony are at the core of community more than history (New England Christianity) or common love of the landscape (Colorado Christianity). In Southern Christianity, where I was shaped into a minister (might I add with some significant kicking and screaming from yours truly), personal stories are also how you show your love and express your faith. Story is what makes us human. All creates communicate in some form, but only we tell stories.
In that context, where story is the heart of being Christian, there is a different way to talk about what we might call a “sermon” or “homily.” Instead of calling it a sermon, they call it a Word or a Good Word. Preach us a Good Word today, Pastor! So today, on my last Sunday in this pulpit, I don’t want to preach at you, to meditate you to sleep, or offer some highfalutin homily, but I want to share a simple Good Word with you about the power you have had bringing this Scripture to life in my ministry and life.
Turning now… The Word Jesus shares with us this morning in Mark 12: 28-34 is Love.
He is asked, “Which commandment is the first of all?” 29 Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30 you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” 32 Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; 33 and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself'—this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
This is my favorite passage in all of Scripture. I value it for its simplicity, its necessity, and relevance for today. I don’t care what religion you are. I don’t care if you don’t have a religion at all. No matter who you are or what you call yourself, the idea that we are called to love our neighbors reigns supreme today and always in every culture and every corner of this world. The difference in how we treat each other and, in our politics can all be cured by the power of the Word…love. It is such a simple message, yet it is forever aspirational in nature. It forever requires our daily repeating. Our word of the day every day is love.
Today in the Gospel of Mark we have Jesus’ benediction. This is the end of his teachings as he turns towards the cross. Throughout the Gospel of Mark, Jesus has been saying this all along—through different stories and metaphors he has tried to communicate his purpose. Finally, right as he is about to face the proceedings that will lead to his end (he is already in Jerusalem when our story today takes place), as he finishes his ministry here in Chapter 12 of Mark, he says it plainly for once. There is no commandment greater than these—nor patriotism, nor purity, nor progressive politics, nor recognitions, nor fame, nor the amount of your pledge… no… your story is love of neighbor and of God. Period.
You all have shared so much love with me in my time at Plymouth. From being a 15-year-old lost high schooler wondering around these pews through college, seminary, ordination, and ministry—you have been love.
As a person of words and language, the way I have most received your love is in your sharing of stories. I spoke about this at the start of my sermon, and I want to come back to it now. I love words for their meaning, but it is in your stories that I have found your love for me as your pastor. It is love manifested as trust.
You have shared stories about your deepest fears, secrets, hopes, dreams, lost dreams, dead relatives long ago and yesterday, new born babies, hospitalizations, insecurities, theological question, justice innovations, funny times, etc. We have laughed, cried, and sat in silence.
There is a story told in speechlessness as well, isn’t there?
I have come to realize, as a young minister, that this is how you all have shown me love. This is how you have lived into The First Commandment message of Jesus from our Scripture today. I will be leaving Plymouth as your minister and fellow member this week, but the love you have shown me through trusting me with your stories will last a lifetime. The Word you have shared with me is love, and that love in our pastoral relationship has manifested in the stories you have shared with me. Your stories, not church politics, have ordained me to ministry and send me now to Second Call in Connecticut. The robes, stoles, and titles have never interested me in this work. You could take them all away, and I would be more than good with that. What has ordained me to this work is your stories. I promise now as I leave you to keep them safe in my heart and forever in my prayers as I ponder your Gospel.
In January I preached a sermon about clergy being like curators of art galleries or museums, and while that is still true, a new metaphor has taken hold of my imagination this week. I have started to think of the role of a minister as being a lot like being a safe container. Sure, I have to be open and receptive to the different ways you all communicate, but the most important part of my job (more than party planning or preaching or emailing)… the most sacred thing about being a minister is receiving your words… your stories and remembering them and holding them safe. My job is to let you know that you are not alone in the echo chamber of your own storybook. You have shown your love for me as your pastor by sharing those intimate and precious stories with me, and I show that love back by remembering them and holding onto them forever in my heart.
My Metaphor today is that of the Minister as a Treasure Chest. In the tales and stories about pirates and buried treasure, the box itself is never of much value save for the fact that it is filled with riches. Likewise, what good is a minister without stories? What value is a pastor who hasn’t learned to cherish and keep safe the Words of her or his parish? The Word we share, the Love we manifest as congregation and clergy has been to be in dialogue. It is a conversation that never ends even though I won’t be here any more as I ponder your stories.
You shall love your neighbor as yourself. I shall love your stories as my own and protect them and take them with me always. As a treasure chest is made whole and real by the value of its contents, so I have been made a real minister by my time with you.
In closing, as a lover of words, I thought a bit about what words for goodbye mean in French and English. In French, the quotidian way to say goodbye is with “au revoir” meaning till we see each other again. But when you say a long-term goodbye without a known conclusion in this lifetime—you mark it by saying Adieu. Adieu means "to God I give you, to God I leave you, and with God’s love I enfold you." Adieu.
In English, we say goodbye. Anyone know where this comes from? Goodbye comes from an old English contraction for “God be with ye.” Moreover, students of language say that goodbye is the response line of the one being sent away. The who sends or isn’t leaving would say “farewell,” and the one leaving would reply with “goodbye.”
“Farewell,” one would offer—have a good journey ahead.
“Goodbye,” would be the reply—God be with you.
This time of saying goodbye is a dialogue. As the history of the phrase “goodbye” shows, it is two sided, and we need each other to truly say farewell/goodbye well.
Today I wanted to share a simple Word with you. That word is love. Some of you I may never see again but know that I will never forget you. Your stories will always be in my heart.
So, as Mr. Rodgers said, at the end of his final episode, and I paraphrase, “I like you just the way you are, and I am so grateful to you for bringing healing to so many different neighborhoods… it is such a good feeling to know we are friends. Goodbye for now.”
Adieu, Plymouth. Farewell, and May God be with you. Amen.
God of the ages, God of many names,
God found both in the peaks of the Rocky Mountains and the depths of Long Island Sound…
God, I call upon you to be with this congregation of your people.
Bring them comfort in their times of wariness—for their strength is needed.
Bring them leaders of wisdom and confidence—for this church is a beacon in this community.
Bring them courage in times of pain—for you are in all things.
O God, I give you thanks for their radical hospitality
that not only helped me find a home in Christianity
but has allowed me to share that story with others.
I give you thanks for their generosity that is manifested today
in their ministry with Habitat for Humanity, FFH, and other endeavors.
I give you thanks for their patience,
especially with their clergy as we don’t always get everything right the first time.
For their immigrant welcoming work—help them to continue to accompany.
For their Open and Affirming work for the LGBTQ community—help them to continue to learn.
For their Peace with Justice stance—help them to stay in solidarity
especially with Israel and Palestinian issues.
We, O God, give you thanks for each other and each person’s stories.
May this church always be a safe container for this sharing, listening, and caring.
We now listen to all of our voices as we together tell the story of hope
through the ancient words of the Lord’s Prayer beginning with, “Our Father…”
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph ("just Jake") came to Plymouth in 2014 having served in the national setting of the UCC on the board of Justice & Witness Ministries, the Coalition for LGBT Concerns, and the Chairperson of the Council for Youth and Young Adult Ministries (CYYAM). Jake has a passion for ecumenical work and has worked in a wide variety of churches and traditions. As of August 2019, he serves First Congregational Church of Guilford, Connecticut.
Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
Fort Collins, CO
38 Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39 She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the LORD's feet and listened to what he was saying. 40 But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me." 41 But the Lord answered her, "Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42 there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her."
How many of you are familiar with this story? Anyone hearing it for the first time? How many of you winced when you heard Martha complain to Jesus? How many of you want to cheer her on because you have been in her position? Its not easy to ask for the help we need. How many of you wince when you hear Jesus’ reply to Martha? Anyone resent Mary just a little bit? Anyone just a little are envious of her? Anyone feel torn between loyalty to Mary and loyalty to Martha? Maybe like both of them live inside of you.
This is a brief, but not a simple story. Its complicated in the archetypes of activism and contemplation it presents us as followers of Jesus. It asks the question, how will we live in relationship with the Holy One? The story has been the theme for many a women’s retreat, its not just a story for women. Men, no sleeping in this sermon! This is story for all of us.
Martha may be the hostess welcoming Jesus ... but Jesus provides the really radical hospitality in the story. He turns the over the gender tables of his time. In the first two verses of this passage, he breaks with two Jewish social norms and conventions regarding women. First, he allows himself to be welcomed into Martha’s home. Not her husband’s home or her father’s or her brother’s. Notice the brother of Mary and Martha, Lazarus, who we hear about the gospel of John, is not even present in this story. This is Martha’s home. And Jesus enters it with no compunctions, no need for first being introduced to her by a male relative. He defies convention honoring her personhood as an equal. And then he goes even further by welcoming Mary and Martha to sit with the disciples for teaching. Women were not traditionally included in the teaching circles of rabbis. Yet there is Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet. And my guess is that Martha was invited to sit in the circle as well from the very beginning. Before she headed to the kitchen.
This is a story of the radical hospitality of Jesus not just for women but for all of us. Because we all live in a world that provides the same distractions that got Martha all caught up and twisted around with anxiety. We live in a world where our worth is measured by our tasks, actions and accomplishments. It’s a badge of honor to be so busy that we are exhausted, worn out, over-functioning. We try to cram as much productivity into a day as possible. Our world pulls us in so many directions it is dizzying.
Have you ever longed to cry out with Martha, “Jesus, do you not care about all I have to deal with, work, school, children, aging or ailing friends and relatives, volunteer work at church and in the community, spending quality time with my partner? Can’t you help? Do I have to do this all alone!” Jesus replies, “My dear, dear friend, you are worried and distracted by many things; come sit. There is need of only one thing.”
And here we are in our progressive Christian community. We are called to social justice for our sisters and brothers who are homeless or who are immigrants, called to environmental justice for creation, called to eradicate gun violence in our country, called to the full inclusion of LGBTQ brothers and sisters, called to just treatment of women and to human rights around the world. And we know recent news cycles send us spinning. We could say with Martha, “Jesus, do you not care that we are trying to welcome and to save all the people who you have taught us are our neighbors, that we are trying to save our planet, that we are trying to keep our community safe from the flagrant use of weapons of war, to teach our children your ways? Jesus! We feel all alone! Who will help? Can you tell all these other Christians to help us!” Jesus replies, “Church, church, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.”
What is this one thing? Was Martha preparing too many dishes for dinner? Is Jesus saying, “Don’t’ multi-task!” Okay, Jesus....you have our attention. What is that one thing? Why has Mary chosen the better part? Why have you not sent her to rescue Martha in her anxiety? For that matter, why don’t you and the disciples get up and help Martha? The work of the world, the care of people, doesn’t get done with just thoughts and prayers! Surely you know that. What is this one thing?”
Jesus says, “Sit down here with Mary and be with me. Be with God. Tend to the intimacy of your relationship with the Holy One, prioritize this rather than the distractions. Come sit by my side. Tell me, how is your soul, dear one?”
Jesus’ invitation does not deny the work that must be done. No one knows more about justice work, about caring for others than he does. The late Madeleine L’Engle captured the importance of work in her brief poem, “Martha”:
nobody can ever laugh at me again.
I was the one who baked the bread.
I pressed the grapes for wine.
Madeleine L’Engle, The Weather of the Heart,
“Martha,” (Harold Shaw Publishers: Wheaton, IL, 1978, 81).
Jesus does not say Martha’s work is unimportant. It is her distraction and anxiety that are tripping her up. The work of our lives is important. Yet Jesus is saying to us in this story, “Relationship to the Holy One comes first. Tend to this life-giving relationship, then all the other work is put into perspective.” It reminds me of Stephen Covey’s time management suggestion in his book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Your life with God, with the kin–dom of God that dwells within you, in your soul, is the first big rock to put into your time management jar. Then comes the other big rocks – family, work, helping to build God’s realm here on earth in whatever way you do that. And then the little rocks of commitments and activities will find their way into the rest of the time left.
When we are distracted like Martha – and I know for me that is daily – how do we sit at Jesus’ feet with Mary? What is quality time with God? This time is about intention and listening with our hearts and minds. Yes, in prayer in its varied forms -- centering prayer and meditation, journaling, praying with scripture, praying with a prayer group. It is regularly coming to worship for communal and individual prayer, scripture, music, even sermons and fellowship with fellow journeyers. It is the challenge of studying God’s word in scripture and God’s word in books that make you think and wrestle theology, spiritual practice and prophetic action. Quality time with God can be intentionally listening in the garden or the mountains. It may be running or yoga. Painting or knitting. It may be sitting quietly with your first cup of coffee or tea and simply being, paying attention to the movement of the Spirit that is prompting you to questions, to actions, to relationships. That “one thing” is intentional time devoted to being with the Holy. The “one thing” can be so many things that lead us into God’s presence where we unburden our hearts and listen for understanding.
There is a legend from the Provence region of France about Mary and Martha. It seems that after the resurrection of Jesus they journeyed to France as missionaries. They retained their archetypal characters. Martha was the activist....she tamed and banished a dragon that was bullying a small town. Mary was a contemplative hermit who supported her sister through prayer and became the wise woman of the area whom many came to for teaching. Each of us may have an affinity or a call for one of these archetypes or the other. In reality we need both Mary and Martha energy in our lives. And we need to remember how Jesus offered them the radical hospitality of God. It was Jesus’ own practice to turn to God’s hospitality of love in prayer so that he could invite others into it. May we be a community that invites one another as Jesus invited Mary and Martha. May we remember to sit with Jesus in radical relationship to God’s love so we can offer the radical invitation of God’s hospitality to our world. May we take Jesus’ words of invitation. to heart even as we serve God, one another and our neighbors.
”There is need of only one thing,” Jesus says. Choose the better part. Come sit with me. Learn with me. Listen with me. Be with me in God’s extravagant welcome of love.” Amen.
©The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, 2019 and beyond. May be reprinted with permission only.
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. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
Before I sat down to write this sermon, I called a member of our congregation, Marilu Theodore, who is in hospital in Portugal with a fractured pelvis (and she hopes to have medivac transportation home this week). One of the things that she remarked on was how very compassionate she has found people who are caring for her. Even the family of the woman she is sharing a room with are visiting with her and checking in on her as well. If you don’t know Marilu, observing the compassion of caregivers is very much in character, and she asked me if Marcus Borg hadn’t said something about compassion when he was here seven years ago. I told her that I’d be writing a sermon about the Parable of the Good Samaritan and relying on Marcus’s work for that…at which time she suggested a title for this sermon: “The View from the Other Side of the Bedpan.”
The Erma Bombeck-esque nature of Marilu’s suggestion is a good one. When we attempt to put ourselves into someone else’s shoes, especially in a moment of distress, how can we help but offer a compassionate response? Perhaps the problem is that most of us don’t really want to identify with the person on the other side of the bedpan, because we are subconsciously afraid that if we imagine it too well, we might imagine that it could be us. We don’t want to “go there,” and if we can avert our eyes and our imagining, perhaps we can deny that the problem exists at all.
If we don’t see children in detention centers on our border, being kept in squalid conditions without their parents, we don’t have to suffer. If we don’t see immigrants being rounded up in American cities as if a new holocaust is about to begin, then we don’t have to suffer. If we don’t see the more than 1,000 people who have contracted Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo this year, then we don’t have to suffer. If we don’t ourselves experience being sexually harassed or open our eyes, ears, and hearts to those who have, we don’t have to suffer. If we can just keep our eyes closed … we won’t have to suffer. Or so we think.
The English word compassion has two Latin roots: cum – “with” – and patior – “to suffer.” So, the English word compassion literally means to suffer with. And the New Testament Greek word for compassion is a doozy: splagknidzomai, which is the feeling of being so affected that you feel it in your splagknon, your guts.
Nobody wants to suffer, but to be the helper of those who suffer does not necessarily mean that we will suffer to the same extent. We can stand on the bank of a swift-moving river, hold onto a tree branch, and extend a hand to the person who would otherwise be swept downstream. We can offer to be in solidarity and relationship with someone who has an incurable disease, and though we may not cure the ailment, we may bring a sense of peace and healing. We can show up when a shooting happens and be part of an ongoing solutions to end gun violence, even though we cannot bring victims back to life. But we cannot do any of those things – we cannot be the hands and feet and eyes and ears of Christ – if we cover our eyes or try to look the other way.
Our faith gives us courage to face things that scare us or intimidate us. I was in divinity school before I had seen a dead body (outside of a college anatomy lab), because my family never had open casket funerals or visiting hours when someone died. I was scared to death of death. So, I took a whole course on death and dying in divinity school, and as a lay caring minister, I went to a family visitation and saw the lifeless body of Roy Bramall, the wonderful elderly man I had been privileged to do ministry with as a member of First Congregational UCC in Boulder. If we move toward our fears, rather than hiding from them, we can dispel the intimidation that boxes us in and keeps us from helping, even if that would be our inclination.
We may think of the priest and the Levite who passed the wounded man on the Jericho Road as being heartless or fearful. But there was something else at play…and that is what Jesus was driving at with this most famous of parables. The 21st chapter of Leviticus details the purity codes for priests: “The Lord said to Moses: Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: No one shall defile himself for a dead person among his relatives, except for his nearest kin.” And according to the book of Numbers, “This is the law when someone dies in a tent: everyone who comes into the tent, and everyone who is in the tent, shall be unclean for seven days.” (Num. 19.14)
We learn from these passages that, especially for priests and their Levites who served God in the Temple, ritual purity was absolutely paramount, so that they could perform the religious rites that were their holy duty. And Luke’s gospel tells us that the victim of the robbers was stripped, beaten, and left for dead. The priest and the Levite were doing what they should have been doing according to Torah. One of the key values in the Temple Judaism of that day was ritual purity, which included all persons, but especially the clergy.
And you may not realize it, but for the audience Jesus was addressing, the only good Samaritan was a dead Samaritan. They were a religious minority group who believed that Mount Gerazim and not Jerusalem was the holy city, and they used only the Pentateuch and saw Moses as the only prophet. Samaritans were personae non gratae for Jews in ancient Israel. So, when Jesus begins to tell a parable that flips our assumptions on their heads, of course he chooses the Samaritan as the good guy in the story.
The Samaritan takes three initial actions in the parable: saw (he saw the man alongside the road), came near (approached the wounded, perhaps dead, man), and experienced compassion (splagknidzomai is used in the NT Greek). Then he does four more actions: bandages the man’s wounds, put him on the Samaritan’s animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. And finally, he assures payment to the innkeeper for whatever is spent on the wounded man. Three steps of compassion: seeing and having compassion, acting, and putting your money where your mouth is.
But wait…it is the Samaritan who is acting justly. And if we are taking a religious minority and holding him up as the hero, over and against the religious authorities of Jesus’ day, then we have a problem…a big problem. Jesus in his parables often gets what white men call “uppity” with the authorities. Jesus doesn’t know his place. He is subverting the dominant paradigm with an alternative. He is holding up the holy value of compassion and saying that it is more important than ritual purity, which was absolutely central to Temple Judaism in the first century.
Whether it is the father who welcomes home with open arms the Prodigal Son (he was a pigherd and ritually unclean) or eating with sinners and tax collectors or saying “Blessed are the pure in heart” (as opposed to those who are pure in hands), Jesus was deliberately replacing the central value of what it means to be faithful: it’s all about compassion, not about purity.
Back to what Marilu Theodore remembered about Marcus Borg, he adds a further and really important point about what Jesus was doing with this parable and with other subversive sayings and actions: “For Jesus, compassion was not simply an individual virtue, but a sociopolitical paradigm expressing his alternative vision of human life in community, a vision of the life embodied in the movement that came into existence around him.” [Marcus Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time. (SF: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994), p. 47.]
The transformative power of compassion is limitless. If it became the dominant political ethos of this nation, think what a different world it would be. Imagine a State Department whose primary diplomatic mission was compassion. Imagine a Department of Homeland Security whose key objectives involved dealing compassionately with refugees and immigrants. Imagine a Congress who, instead of gridlock and partisanship, operated together with compassion for one another and for God’s world. When Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God, which you pray for every time you offer the Lord’s Prayer, that’s what he envisioned. The compassion that Jesus places at the center of our faith has the power to change the world, yet it requires that we open our eyes.
Compassion is about more than doing a good deed…it’s about a costly commitment to changing God’s world.
May it be so. Amen.
© 2019 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.