1 Kings 19. 1-13
9th Sunday after Pentecost
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
1Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, how he had killed all Baal's prophets with the sword. 2Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah with this message: "May the gods do whatever they want to me if by this time tomorrow I haven't made your life like the life of one of them."
3Elijah was terrified. He got up and ran for his life. He arrived at Beer-sheba in Judah and left his assistant there. 4He himself went farther on into the desert a day's journey. He finally sat down under a solitary broom bush. He longed for his own death: "It's more than enough, LORD! Take my life because I'm no better than my ancestors."5He lay down and slept under the solitary broom bush. Then suddenly a messenger/some say an angel tapped him and said to him, "Get up! Eat something!"6Elijah opened his eyes and saw flatbread baked on glowing coals and a jar of water right by his head. He ate and drank, and then went back to sleep. 7The Holy One's messenger returned a second time and tapped him. "Get up!" the messenger said. "Eat something, because you have a difficult road ahead of you."8Elijah got up, ate and drank, and went refreshed by that food for forty days and nights until he arrived at Horeb, God's mountain.
9There he went into a cave and spent the night. The Holy One's word came to him and said, "Why are you here, Elijah?" 10Elijah replied, "I've been very passionate for the Yahweh, the God of heavenly forces because the Israelites have abandoned your covenant. They have torn down your altars, and they have murdered your prophets with the sword. I'm the only one left, and now they want to take my life too!" 11The the Spirit of the Holy One said, "Go out and stand at the mountain before the Yahweh. The Holy One is passing by." A very strong wind tore through the mountains and broke apart the stones before the Holy One. But the Holy One wasn't in the wind. After the wind, there was an earthquake. But the Holy One wasn't in the earthquake. 12After the earthquake, there was a fire. But the Holy One wasn't in the fire. After the fire, there was a sound. Thin. Quiet. 13When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his coat. He went out and stood at the cave's entrance. A voice came to him and said, "Why are you here, Elijah?"
Bible, Common English. CEB Common English Bible with Apocrypha - eBook [ePub] (Kindle Locations 12824-12828).
Why are you here? Today. Right now. Why are you here in this church? In worship? Why are you here? (Pause) Any Ideas? Thoughts? Feelings? Hold all that question….We’ll come back to it. A bit about this story…..
You may remember that in the movie, “The Wizard of Oz,” that Glinda the Good Witch asks the little girl, Dorothy Gale, just after she has miraculously arrived in Oz in a whirlwind from Kansas, “Are you a good witch or a bad witch?” And this question begins Dorothy’s adventures in Oz. It becomes a test of who Dorothy can trust as she journeys through this strange new land, test of leadership. Midway through the required yearlong study of the Hebrew Scriptures or Old Testament at Yale Divinity School, my fellow study group friends and I developed a similar question, “Was he a good king or a bad king?” You see, it was important to know this about the ancient kings of Israel that came after Saul and David and Solomon. It was not just a history questions but also a theological question. Yahweh originally did not want to the people to have a king like their neighboring tribes had because ultimately the leadership of the Hebrew people came from Yahweh. Finally, Yahweh grudgingly allows the prophet Samuel to appoint a king because the people are threatening revolt with the caveat that the test of a “good king” was whether that king took his cues from Yahweh and followed in the ways of the Holy One. So to remember the ups and downs, the adventures of the ancient kings in leading Israel and following Yahweh you had to ask, “Were they good or bad? Following in God’s ways or not? Where were they faithful or where did they do astray?”
Ahab was not a good king. Why? Because he let himself be led astray from following the One God, Yahweh, by his wife, Jezebel, who worshiped the fertility god, Baal. .Jezebel tried to turn all of Israel away from Yahweh to Baal. So the Yahweh called the prophet, Elijah, to prophesy to the king and his wife and all the Israelites. We meet Elijah in our text today at a point when Yahweh has vindicated Elijah in his fight against the prophets of Baal. In fact all the Baal’s prophets have been killed. Jezebel is so angry that she threatens Elijah’s life. So, he runs for it, runs for his life! Straight into the presence of Yahweh on the mountain. Even as he longs to die because his exhaustion after fighting the good fight, God won’t let him give up. He is sustained with food in the wilderness brought by God’s messenger. And this food gives him the strength to continue and to ultimately face meet the Holy One face to face at Horeb, the mountain of God where God met Moses in the burning bush.
God asks, Elijah, on the mountain in that cave. “Why are you here, Elijah?” Can you hear the frustration, the anger, in the prophet’s answer? “You know “darn” well why I am here! I’ve been doing your “darn” work, following you and now that crazy queen is trying to kill me! What do you mean, “Why am I here? I’m here because people aren’t listening. They want to take the easy way out and follow the flashy gods of false culture. I keep preaching. I keep showing up. And it's literally killing me. That’s why I’m here!”
What does our enigmatic God say to this rant? Nada. Nothing. God simply shows up….to be present to Elijah….but not in the drama of earthquake, wind or fire. In silence. In simple presence. In quiet. With a whisper. And then God says again, “Why are you here?”
I ask you, us, God’s question, ”Why are you here? Why are we here?” Here in a church, in this church, in this worship service. It can still be iffy to meet in crowds because of the pandemic. And church is not a flashy, cool place to be, not always a credible place to be in our culture. Why are we here? Why are you here?
And I’m sorry …. “Because my friends are here, because I have always gone to church, because I want my kids to learn moral and values” (as some parents said to me in Sunday School volunteer training years ago) are not fully sufficient answers. You can meet friends in many meaningful organizations and groups. If you aren’t teaching your children morals and values 24/7 then an hour or two at church even every week won’t likely do as much as you might think. Just because you’ve always come to church is nice, but it doesn’t really get to the point, does it? Why, really, why are you here?
Why are you here? Hearing any whispers?
This past week, Hal sent an article to Plymouth staff, and our board and committee leaders from the Faith-Lead group at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN. It was titled, “Focus on Why.” It’s essentially about how to invite people into the life and ministry of our churches. In bulletin inserts and weekly emails, we tend to only give the “what” that we do assuming that people will intuit the “why.” But if we only say, we need more volunteers for this food pantry service project, or to staff the youth pancake supper, or to teach Sunday school, or even more people to come to worship, we really don’t reach the core of people’s busy lives. “Why” should they come to these events, volunteer for these ministries, join us in worship? The article’s author writes, “I want people to hear that the ministry we do is critical. I want them to hear that God is incredibly active in what we do. I don’t actually care about pancakes or giving up time on a Saturday morning. What I do care about is why people give up their Saturday morning to help at the pantry. I care about why kids need to experience a national youth gathering to grow in their faith which will be funded by a pancake supper. I care about why people need to take time in their life to worship to live a fuller life with God. How will we notice God at work through activities if we don’t even know why we are doing them?”
My friends, we cannot answer the “why” of all our events and ministries in order to invite more folks to join us, if we do not know “why” we ourselves are here to worship, to participate in learning, to work for social justice, to nurture our children and youth.
Why are you here?
Elijah was so caught up in the drama and exhaustion and risk of his work – and all of which was very real – that he could not hear the voice of God, feel the presence of the One who sustained him and be grateful for that sustenance until he was stopped still in his tracks. His first answer is full of drama. And fear. Then, after the earthquake, wind and fire, God asks him again, “Elijah, why are you here?” The question echoes through the silence of that cave. “Why are you here?” As the story continues from the endpoint of our text today, Elijah actually gives God the very same answer he gave the first time. Yet I hear it with a very different emotional tone.
"I've been very passionate for Yahweh, the God of heavenly forces because the Israelites have abandoned your covenant. They have torn down your altars, and they have murdered your prophets with the sword. I'm the only one left, and now they want to take my life too." [Bible, Common English. CEB Common English Bible with Apocrypha - eBook [ePub] (Kindle Locations 12841-12843).]
Did you hear the difference as Elijah speaks into the silence. “I was following you, God. I was scared, God. I am tired and angry, God. I don’t know where else to be, God. I don’t have anyone, anything, else to count on. I want to be with you, God.” Could any of those be the reasons we are here this day in this church, in worship?
After Elijah answers this second time, God, gives the prophet specific instructions of who to go to for help with his mission. Go to the leader of this tribe and that one, make this person your successor prophet. And I have preserved this many people in Israel who are faithful to me and will work with you in opposition to Jezebel and her prophets of Baal. However, before these instructions, Elijah, has to stop and really listen to the question of the Holy One….”Why are you here?”
As we prepare for re-opening our church programming in more ways – we hope – in the fall, as we follow the guidance and vision of our very prayerfully and intentionally developed strategic plan, as we welcome and get to know new staff who will minister with and among us, let us keep God’s question before us, “Why are you here?” Like the ancient kings of Israel and their prophets, will we be “good” leaders in the kingdom, the realm of God… following in and listening to God’s ways no matter how risky or counter-cultural? Or will we be “not so good”, “bad” even, going with the flow of culture, doing things like we’ve always done before, afraid to risk, not questioning if we are straying from the presence and the sustenance of God? Like Elijah, each of us must answer the question, “Why are you here?” Why do you keep coming back to God’s community? Why do you keep seeking the company of the Holy One? Why are you here? Amen.
©The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, 2021 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.
Rev. Dr. Ron Patterson
Plymouth Congregational Church
Fort Collins, CO
Charnley and I are happy to be back with you again! This congregation and this community have become our second home. Hal, Jane Anne and Mark along with your leaders have extended a wonderful welcome in the last few days. I would be less than honest though if I did not confess, that while I have come to love this congregation and its ministry to the Fort Collins community, my deeper motivation for accepting this three-month bridge assignment has lots to do with our two grandchildren, Heath and Quinn, and the opportunity to spend some extra time with them. Besides, accepting this job enabled me to score one of those coveted Plymouth parking stickers for the back of our car.
We left home in Tacoma last Friday the 9th and arrived here last Sunday. I spent Monday learning about your computer system and something called Slack, which is a fascinating name for a system that enables continuous communication between your staff and maybe continuous work? As a recovering workaholic struggling with retirement, Slack is such an enticing temptation! Just think of the possibilities---something that sounds like rest—slacking off, gifting me with the possibility of continuous engagement!
I had been in the office about an hour, being tutored by your amazing Communications Coordinator, Anna Broskie, when Hal and Jane Anne invited me out to lunch. Of course, I accepted and learned over lunch that they wanted me to preach today; and since it was my first day on the job, I really couldn’t refuse.
After lunch, I went back to my study and read the lectionary passages for this Sunday and one of them was the Shepherd Psalm. Chances are about 80% of you could recite these words from memory and even people who have never cracked open a Bible find them familiar. They are words of comfort and hope. They are words of promise and what they promise is the eternal presence of the loving God watching with us on the journey of life. One of the things this life journey has taught me is that we don’t get to choose the valleys through which we may have to journey—that it’s “valley now or valley later,” valley of the shadow of death or despair or depression or fear, or tragedy, but that the promise of the presence of the shepherd does not fail.
This morning I want to share a few thoughts with you that came to me as we were driving through rural Oregon, Idaho, Utah, and Wyoming. Thoughts I found myself pondering as I saw signs of political discontent and anger about last year’s election as we traveled from one blue island in Washington to another in Colorado through a sea of hot red. I want to think with you about tolerance and take as my text the shepherd Psalm.
As I looked at the Psalm this time, I noticed something that I had not noticed before. I knew that it is full of spiritual truth. I knew that it is a compact comforter ready to read or remember when life’s bumps and bruises challenge or threaten to overwhelm. I’ve read it beside hospital beds, at gravesides and remembered its words when I couldn’t seem to remember anything else. I’ve never met a person who failed to understand its power, but this time I noticed something more.
Woven into the fabric of this little poem, are gentleness and kindness and acceptance. Lovingly, these simple words about the Good Shepherd invite us to a different way of living with the people around us. They invite us to travel the way of tolerance in what often these days seems to be a journey surrounded by growing intolerance.
What I hear in these words is something that seems to be sadly lacking in the screaming voices standing on street corners or packing guns in public places or writing political commentary or expressing religious ideas here and around the world. You don’t have to go very far to meet people who figure that you and I are going to hell because we welcome everybody. You don’t have to travel too far to meet others who reckon that because we speak up for reproductive freedom or say that black lives matter we are not really Christians or that because we try to take the Bible seriously and not literally, we are not true followers of the way of Jesus.
It fills me with fear that some people believe that there is only one way to understand what God wants us to understand about life and love and who to love and the future. And worst of all, is dressing hate up as a cross between patriotism and ignorance and calling it Christianity and then deluding people by suggesting that one set of political ideas is the only set which bears the stamp of divine approval and that any preacher or any politician can tell you exactly what that is.
What I see when I read the shepherd Psalm is nothing like any of that, but what I hear when I listen to so many people and even sometimes when I listen to myself when I am overtaken by fear or frustration at others’ ideas or actions… is something a whole lot different.
What I see and what I hear is regrettably the idea that if I am right you must be wrong and that if you are correct, then I must be wrong and that the rightness or the wrongness of my perception or your perception throws up a wall between us that cannot be breached and that if it is, then you are a winner and I am loser or the other way round.
Some time ago, I ran across an article that talked about silo thinking. Silo thinking. That right now in this nation and in the world, many people only listen to the people with whom they agree—that like those hard concrete silos where farmers store things—too many of us are living in intellectual, spiritual and political isolation, separated from one another. I spent time on a farm as a child and we had a silo—you know what that is—it’s one of those beautiful big round, tall structures that dot the rural landscape. Each summer, we filled the silo with either chopped hay or chopped corn and then it fermented and the cows loved it—I think it was sort of like herd keg party—but the silo was dangerous, and sometimes farmers died—because sometimes those hard concrete walls held not only the crops, but dangerous gas that could kill.
Well, that is the danger of silo thinking, because it clouds the mind and the heart with the deadly temptation to deny the image of God in another person or to see another one of God’s children as an enemy to be vilified and defeated.
To get ahead of myself for a second, let me just say that the image of God setting a table in the presence of our enemies turns that idea upside down, and that’s about tolerance and acceptance and having an open heart and an open mind. Hold that thought, please for a moment.
A few years ago, I attempted to rewrite the Shepherd Psalm to fit some of the intolerance and silo thinking I heard floating around in my own head and heart and in the community where I was and around this nation and around the world. And please forgive me, I am not a poet and I am not a Psalmist, but I am someone who is troubled by the creeping intolerance that seems to be festering in all sorts of places. Particularly in places where according to the love of Jesus it does not belong.
Listen now to words which stuff the shepherd Psalm into a silo of intolerance:
God is the ruler who gives me what I want.
I own the pasture because I obey God’s rules.
I drown out the water’s gentle sound with the self-righteous roar of my ideas.
God is on my side, I have the exact words to prove it.
You better watch out since you’re in the dark and I’m not.
So I will beat you on the head with the rod of my belief.
And if you come to the table at all, it will be on my terms.
But if you don’t agree with me, you’re the enemy.
You don’t belong.
My cup is full because I earned it,
and God’s with me right where I am,
but surely not where you are.
Now that’s somewhat silly and somewhat overstated and those words are negative and those words are not hopeful and those are not the words I want you to leave here this morning remembering.
I want you to remember instead that when you and I say that God is our shepherd that does not mean that God loves any of God’s other children one little bit less. I want you to leave here with the idea that there is no fence around the green pasture and that the still water of a heart at peace with itself and God’s unconditional love, flows for every single person who seeks it. If you or I limit the love of God, then we have denied the essential nature of God as the ground of unlimited possibility. The God who spoke through Jesus, will not be enclosed in any silo of the mind or political reality human beings can design to fool themselves into feeling secure in its bounds.
And when a politician or a religious leader plays with the fear we have about the future or about our security, by building silos that separate us from God’s other children, then they have denied the essential truth the Good Shepherd calls us to live. A church or a nation built on a foundation of fear and intolerance might succeed for a time, but the arc of history and eternal truth always tends toward love.
I want us to live our lives understanding that when the Psalmist talks about restoring our souls, that soul restoration is a lifelong process and that judging where any other child of God is in that process, just delays our own journey.
I want us all to remember that just because we think we’re right about something others do not by definition, by politics or by theology have to be wrong. I want us to remember that even a stopped clock is correct twice-a-day. I want us to hold to the center of our hearts the memory that even if we are wrong or others are wrong, we are still called to love ourselves and love them too. I want us to remember that life is a journey and that God is still speaking and acting on that journey and calling us to work for justice.
I want us to know with every once of our being that we are loved by God but that God’s love for us does not mean others who worship in different languages or in ways that seem odd to us are worshiping a different God.
If it’s just my dark valley that is covered and if the staff and the rod of God’s love just heal the problems of people who look like me or act like me or think like me—then I must have the Holy One mixed up in my mind with a cheap little god who is a whole lot smaller than the whole universe and who is created in my image rather than the other way round. That’s not the God revealed by the person who sang this Psalm the first time and that is not what Jesus was trying to say either.
The table at which we are invited to sit and be welcomed, is larger than my idea of just how big it is. The goodness is better and the mercy is fuller and there are more days there than I have to worry about, because the house of God’s love is infinitely large and extravagantly welcoming to all.
Now, that’s how I read the shepherd psalm and that’s why I know the Shepherd is good!
From July 12 to October 3, 2021, the Rev. Ron Patterson is with us again, having served as a sabbatical interim four years ago, and then serving as our interim conference minister during The Rev. Sue Artt’s sabbatical. Ron retired as Senior Minister of Naples United Church of Christ in Florida. Ron and his wife have family here in Fort Collins: their daughter is a member of Plymouth, and their grandchildren are active in Sunday school. Pronouns: he/him.
7th Sunday in Pentecost
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
If you noticed that the hymn we just sang is one we sing in Advent you are very perceptive! And have a great memory! It is also an adaptation of our scripture for today, Psalm 24. Listen now to the psalm from the Common English translation of the Bible. I have made a few tweaks for inclusive language.
The earth is the LORD's and everything in it, the world and its inhabitants too.
2 Because God is the one who established it on the seas; God set it firmly on the waters.
3 Who can ascend the [Holy One's] mountain? Who can stand in [God’s] holy sanctuary?
4 Only the one with clean hands and a pure heart;
the one who hasn't made false promises, the one who hasn't sworn dishonestly.
5 That kind of person receives blessings from the [Holy One] and righteousness from the God who saves.
6 And that's how things are with the generation that seeks the [Holy One] --
that seeks the face of Jacob's God.
7 Mighty gates: lift up your heads! Ancient doors: rise up high!
So the glorious [ruler] can enter!
8 Who is this glorious [ruler]? The LORD--strong and powerful!
The LORD--powerful in battle!
9 Mighty gates: lift up your heads! Ancient doors: rise up high!
So the glorious [ruler] can enter!
10 Who is this glorious [ruler]?
The [Holy One] of heavenly forces—this One is the glorious ruler! [Forever!] (Selah)
- Common English Bible with Apocrypha - eBook [ePub] (Kindle Locations 20131-20139).
The earth belongs to the God the Creator! The triumphant beginning of this ancient song was most likely sung antiphonally in festival worship. You can hear all the call and response lines…..Who can ascend the Holy One’s sacred mountain?....The one with clean hands and a pure heart….Lift up your heads, mighty gates! ….Ancient doors, rise up! Who is the king/ruler of glory? …. It is God, strong and mighty! This was – is – a majestic hymn parts of which were handed down from pre-exilic days in Israel when there was a temple with mighty gates to approach. And parts of which came from post-exilic days when the people had heard so much from the prophets about how clean and humble hearts, integrity in action following God’s ways of justice, were much more important than burnt offerings in a temple that has been destroyed by conquerors.
The psalm also reminds me of the story in 2 Samuel of King David bringing the Ark of the Covenant back to Jerusalem from Judah after he and the forces of Israel soundly defeated the Philistines through the power and instruction of God. If you remember the Ark was the portable residence of God which also held the Torah given to Moses. It traveled with the people of Israel wherever they went. The story goes that the Ark was put with great ceremony and care in an ox cart and taken from town to town before it was given permanent residence in Jerusalem, the City of David the King. Along the way, David led the procession, literally dancing in great abandon, before the Ark of the Covenant, accompanied by a great crowd of musicians on zithers and harps and tambourines and cymbals. Not a stately, kingly thing to do, perhaps. But a joyous, devoted, “wear your heart on your sleeve” celebration of your faith kind of thing to do. A celebration of the God who has appointed you the ruler and brought you victoriously through great battles kind of thing. When the procession reaches Jerusalem, it seems that David’s wife, Saul’s daughter, Michal, looks out the palace window and sees her husband dancing with abandon before the ark and she is scandalized! Not the way a king should behave! One translation says, “she lost all respect for him.” Another say, “she despised him in her heart.” Too much, too showy! Too religious?
Have you ever felt like Michal? Something was too showy or too “religious” for you? Kind of embarrassing? Or perhaps, you find yourself not quite owning up to being a Christian as the source of your social justice passion when you are with other progressives because Christianity has such a bad reputation from extreme far right Christians. Perhaps you are afraid someone will say, “You’re not a Christian, are you?” Or perhaps you confess, “yes, I am, but not THAT kind of Christian.” “Well, what kind? And why?” Then you feel tongue-tied. You are not alone….Pulitzer Prize winning columnist, Connie Schultz, who writes for USA TODAY, is married to Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, and is part of our UCC family, wrote in a recent column, “My faith continues to be a source of challenge and comfort, but I find myself defending it more these days when in the company of fellow progressives. This is an understandable development in our country, perhaps, but sometimes it puts me in a mood.”[i]
I have experienced this mood. Have you? Part anger, part embarrassment, frustration! My faith is a comfort and a challenge. I want to wear it on my sleeve and experience its deepest mysteries, its high and lows, and be ready to speak about it in any situation, to even express my joy and relief in its comfort to the point of dancing if the situation calls for it. Bodily expression of faith such as King David expressed was never really part of the faith tradition I was grew up in, though we were constantly challenged to verbally share our faith, “to witness.” This always felt a bit awkward because I thought it was about sharing something intellectually doctrinal that I didn’t think I could articulate. I usually just chose to be nice to my friends and invite them to church if it seemed right. But inviting someone to church in the 60’s and early 70’s in the Bible belt was not particularly scandalous. Now we are being called, as Schultz comments, to speak our faith in interfaith settings, in our families that hold views of Christianity across the spectrum from left to right and to use our bodies and our words to demonstrate for justice. If you are ever uncomfortable, you are in good company.
When I read Psalm 24 over and over again this week, I was struck by the psalmist’s pure bodily joy in the goodness of God and creation, by the deep bodily longing to get right with God in heart and action in order to stand in ultimate trust before the Divine, by the giant, humongous amount of joy in welcoming God, the glorious ruler and maker of all the earth and the cosmos into the presence of the people in worship. And I longed to have my faith renewed to experience these things. It is easy to be beaten down by life to the point that worship is lackluster and just kind of washes over us as we go through the motions. Or to feel constrained in sharing our faith because of the ways Christianity has been falsely used to oppress others. Thank goodness that in times like these, when we do not have the energy to muster up a dance, even in our hearts, when we feel our silenced by our fears of being misunderstood, God receives us with open arms, anyway! Thank goodness…because it is only though continuing to intentionally show up time and again in God’s presence in good seasons and tough seasons, that we have the opportunity to be surprised once again by faith that encompasses our whole beings, body, mind, heart and soul.
This is the invitation of Psalm 24. To show up with our whole being, not just our heads, but our hearts, our arms, our legs, our voices, our eyes and ears, our gut instincts in the presence of the Holy. We show up for the sheer joy of being alive, of just being. Of “oneing” with God as the 13th century mystic, Julian of Norwich wrote. Julian was a prophet before her time testifying to “a true oneing between the divine and the human. She writes that when human nature was created, it was “rightfully one-ed with the creator, who is Essential Nature …that is, God. This is why there is absolutely nothing separating the Divine soul from the Human soul…in endless love we are held and made whole. In endless love we are led and protected and will never be lost.”[ii]
Julian’s entire life from childhood until her death was encompassed by the Black Death pandemic of the Middle Ages. She lost her family to the plague. She knew suffering and “saw a great oneing between Christ and us” because of he knew pain as we do.[iii] We are one-ed with God in joy and in suffering, held in love. I agree with her. And her insights illuminate the invitation of Psalm 24 to invite God so deeply into our beings that we are transformed, made clean, forgiven and can dance - in body or soul or both – for joy. Psalm 24 invites us to show up again and again to wear our faith scandalously on our sleeves for the world to see just as King David before us, just as our contemporary UCC sister, Connie Schultz.
I want to end with another hearing the psalm again from the book, Psalms for Praying, by Nan Merrill, whose interpretation of the psalms helps us to hear beyond the ancient language of kings and winning battles to how the Spirit works in our interior lives.
The earth is yours, O Giver of Life,
in all its fulness and glory,
the world and all those who
For You have founded it upon
and established it upon the rivers.
Who shall ascend your hill,
O Gracious One?
and who shall stand in your
All who have clean hands and
who do not lift up their souls
to what is false,
nor make vows deceitfully.
All those will be blessed by the
Heart of Love,
and renewed through forgiveness.
Such is the promise to those
who seek Love’s face.
Lift up your heads, O gates!
and be lifted up,
O ancient doors!
that the Compassionate One
may come in.
Who is the Compassionate One?
The Beloved, strong and steadfast,
the Beloved, firm and sure!
Lift up your heads, O gates!
and be lifted up,
O ancient doors!
that the Compassionate One
may come in!
Who is this compassionate One?
The Beloved Heart of your heart,
Life of your life,
this is the Compassionate One.[iv]
Truly, it is God’s intention that we are “one-ed” in Love. That we share the joy and justice of this “one-ing” with all whom we encounter, from those most intimate with us to those we may only brush by in acquaintance. Are you ready to share your faith, even in the tough situations? Are you ready to sing it? Are you ready to dance for joy? Amen.
©The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson, 2021 and beyond. May be reprinted with permission only.
[i] Tweet from @Connie Schultz; her full article can be found at usatoday.com.
[ii] Julian of Norwich, Wisdom in a Time of Pandemic and Beyond, Matthew Fox, (iUniverse: Bloomington, IN, 2020, 62).
[iv] “Psalm 24,” Psalms for Praying; An Invitation to Wholeness, Nan Merrill, (Continuum: NY, NY, 1998, 41-42).
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
It’s been a while… It is so good to see you all here this morning! I would imagine that it’s a little bit different being back in your spiritual home this morning, even if you’ve been coming to our in-person 6:00 p.m. service over the last month. I will tell you that it is certainly different for me and my colleagues not being alone (or with two or three other people) in the sanctuary preaching or singing or speaking into a camera lens, hoping that you would see it a few days later.
Homecomings can be a warm and wonderful experience, and I hope that is true for you today. And I know we have some folks who have only ever worshiped with us online, so I hope that you will find this to be a warm homecoming to your new faith community!
But some homecomings are fraught, and that seems to have been the case for Jesus when he returns home to Nazareth. In the chapters leading into today’s episode in Mark, Jesus has offered parables, stilled a storm, purged demons, healed a woman who touched the hem of his garment, and raised Jairus’s daughter from the dead. Jesus has been busy! Mark has described him as being filled with wisdom and amazing abilities as a healer…but not everybody gets it, or wants to get it; not everyone is quite ready to agree that he’s the real deal. Can’t you just hear the naysayers scoffing and saying, “Yeah…as if! This is Mary’s son who was born before her marriage to Joseph the carpenter! Trust me, he’s nothing special.” “Yeah, you know his brother James, what a loser! And his sisters are as ugly as old hens!” “I’m just not happy that he’s back here making waves, trying to change things, and disturbing the way we’ve always done things. And why didn’t he heal this arthritic knee of mine?!”
Naysayers are always part of the picture, but what interests me is that the writer of Mark’s gospel highlights them in this episode. The reason, I suspect, is to provide the reader with a negative example not to follow.
Teddy Roosevelt delivered an address at the Sorbonne in 1910 after serving as president. (You may have heard Brené Brown quote this in her book, Daring Greatly.) Here is a snippet:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” *
If we never take risks, if we never rock the boat, if we never stand up publicly for what we believe most deeply, we run the risk of turning into the critics and naysayers that surround the man in the arena and the man of Nazareth.
Courage is one of the virtues that we don’t make enough of in 21st-century American Christianity. It doesn’t take much courage to sit back and say, “Isn’t this dude the carpenter, Mary’s kid?” It does take courage to say, “I’ll follow him and change my perspectives, my priorities, and even my life.”
It takes courage to stand up to help shift the status quo, to say that Black Lives DO matter, that we will use all varieties of our privilege in order to make things better for all of us and not just for ourselves and people who look like us, think like us, eat like us, believe like us. It takes courage to speak up when a friend or colleague makes an insensitive remark about race or gender. It takes courage to say, “I’m going to look beyond my own self-interest and act for the good of the whole.”
I know it is difficult to be in the arena, and we all have been there together during the pandemic. We’ve been trying to keep our families together, our wits together, our souls together, and our church together. It’s bigger and broader than individuals, it is systemic. You and I have just finished running a marathon, and we made it. It has been a costly race. I don’t know about you, but I am feeling exhausted and need to recuperate.
In a few weeks, you are going to hear about our new Strategic Plan, which the Leadership Council accepted at last month’s meeting. And it’s going to take courage on your part to put this aspirational document into practice: to bring the words on the page into life. This morning I will share the vision part of the plan:
“Plymouth’s purpose for the next three to five years is to embody beloved community with God, each other, and our neighbors. We will enhance our communications and deepen engagement within the church. We will be a visible force for social, racial, and environmental justice. This focus will help Plymouth’s already vibrant community look to the future and grow in numbers and in spirit.”
The first thing I want to emphasize is that this is a plan for three to five years in our life together. The implications of that are that we don’t have to make this happen all at once or tomorrow or even in 2022 or 2023.
Musical tempos are marked in different ways. Allegro means play at a brisk tempo, and we sometimes do that at Plymouth…in fact, I’d say that allegro is our normal tempo. But during the pandemic, we have had to increase the tempo to presto, which is quick (as in let’s pivot again and again and again.) But if music were always to be played a presto, it would be hard to listen to and even harder to play. We need to vary our pace after running this marathon. We need to catch our breath. We need to learn to play andante, which is moderate tempo, a walking pace. Because we’ve just run the marathon, if we try to run a second one nonstop, I fear we won’t finish the race. Remember, it’s a three-to-five-year race!
Friends, it is going to take courage to bring this vision to life. It is going to take courage to realize, to accept, and to encourage that things will change. It is going to take courage for us to be the person in the arena and not the crowd of critics. It’s going to take courage to learn to play andante.
History will not remember us for maintaining the status quo, for looking only inward at what we ourselves need, for being quiescent in the face of sweeping societal and political challenges. But more important than what history will remember us for, what will God remember us for? Are we going to strive valiantly with our “faces marred by dust and sweat and blood?” Are we those who are daring greatly or are we timid souls who neither know victory or defeat? Are we going to spend ourselves on the worthy cause of our faith? Are we going to be hometown prophets who are willing to be seen as those without honor, even as we are doing the work God calls us to?
Being a Christian, especially in this century much more so than the last, takes guts and faith and love and courage. “Beloved community” is a phrase coined by the American philosopher Josiah Royce and picked up by MLK in the 1950s. More than an efficient corporate structure, more than a faceless organization, more than a cold-hearted institution, Plymouth must continue to embody beloved community that puts love for God and one another first.
But here is what I know about Plymouth: We’ve got this. Time and again, I’ve seen us prevail where others failed. I’ve seen us buck the trends and do things others thought impossible. I’ve seen us use our faith and determination to turn things upside down, because we’re willing to go the extra mile.
We — this community of faith — have what it takes. Our fellow members need us. Our children need us. The coming generations need us. Our community needs us. Our denomination needs us. God needs us.
We’ve got this. Welcome home, you hometown prophets!
© 2021 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact email@example.com for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
*speech at the Sorbonne, April 23, 1910
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.