A summer sermon related to John 1:1-12
Central Point: To introduce Active Hope as an expression of a faithful inspiration and integrity-based form of hope and action, especially necessary in difficult times of anxiety
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overtake it.
6 There was a man sent from God whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him, yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God…
For the Word in Scripture,
For the Word among us,
For the Word within us
Thanks Be to God
When I was young, I kept hoping that the Chicago Cubs would win; they would win that day and that they would win the World Series. But that hope was difficult to maintain, particularly in the 1970s and even in the 1980s when they would win more, but still break the hearts of Cub fans like me in stunning fashion during the season or in the playoffs. But now that I've lived a lot of years and given the Cubs plenty more seasons to try, I lived to see my hope realized in 2016. (It only took 108 years between championships.)
This is hope that is based on outcomes. It is based on the prediction of a favorable outcome. Now this year with the Cubs, I have no hope for that kind of favorable outcome. They will not win the World Series nor even make the playoffs. I can always hope for another year in the future for a more likely favorable outcome.
But mostly these days I'm not thinking of such things very much, such objects of hope or even this form of hope. Although it was nice to finally have the hope of a Cubs World Series win realized in 2016, it happened while I was at the Standing Rock Lakota Reservation with my wife, Allison. We were with the Lakota people protesting the Keystone XL pipeline which was unjustly routed through their reservation and near their water supply. Getting the news of the Cubs winning the World Series while I was at standing rock was such an instant teaching of perspective. That win just didn’t matter that much in the scheme of life. Though I had hoped for this event in my life for many, many years (involving baseball which I love), receiving it while at Standing Rock was a profound teaching that not only was hope was better focused on other matters, it would also need to be formed in a different way.
At the camp in Standing Rock, entertainment like baseball was, of course, not our focus. Our mantra was “water is life,” mni wiconi. That gathering was a prayer meeting where the prayer fire never went out and the hope was always to protect the water and therefore to protect life. The likelihood of success was low. The legal system had conspired against the Lakota and the law enforcement was well funded and equipped with vehicles, personnel, and arms.
Yet, that gathering at Standing Rock was a living example of active hope. And that’s what I want to lift up today: active hope.
I'm taking this term active hope from a book by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone titled, Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in Without Going Crazy.
And, if you haven't noticed, we are in a mess aren't we?
Business as usual has been and is leading us into what's been called a great unraveling of environmental systems not to mention income inequality and the rise of authoritarian movements in the world. Macy and Johnstone get us right to the point of their book with the subtitle “how to face the mess we are in without going crazy.” For if we really face the truth of it, it could drive us to madness, certainly heartbreak. Our collective behavior seems crazy.
If you don’t know her, Joanna Macy is an elder (93 years old now) and a Buddhist teacher. I find her trustworthy for that reason and also for the reason that this teaching about active hope resonates with the stories of faith in our Scriptures and in the lives of so many of our Saints. It is in these Scripture stories and the stories of the Saints that I see a kind of active hope that Macy talks about.
What is active hope?
Well, it's not hoping that the Cubs will win.
In fact, active hope is not based on the likelihood of an outcome, rather it is hope rooted in a vision of what we long for, or in the case of the people of faith, what God longs for. You could call it the Realm of God or the kin-dom of God or the Beloved Community (as Dr. King was fond of calling it), but it is that vision of blessing and fullness and wholeness, that vision of justice and peace and the integrity of creation of which God dreams and to which God calls us.
And while one side of active hope is rooted in this vision, the other side of active hope is rooted in our action, action that is in integrity with that vision. Not unlike the way that Jesus so often taught that the Realm of God is already here, practicing active hope means that we are living out the values or participating in the energies of that Realm here and now. Through our presence, our choices, and our actions, we can live in that Realm already. Active hope then is a practice, something we do with our imagination and actions. It is not passive and it is not based on the likelihood of external outcome (like hoping that the Cubs win or that it's going to be pleasant weather).
Active hope means we connect with the vision of the Realm of God, the beauty and value of it, of life and community in its blessing, and act from it and for it. We act to bring it further into being, not calculating the likelihood of a short term or even an ‘in our lifetime’ outcome.
It is not about how we feel things are going or might likely turn out. It is about what we do. Active hope is about vision, the vision of what we long for to become manifest in the world and how that draws us into life and action. It is that connection to the vision and values and staying true to it, no matter the situation, that keeps us from becoming hopeless or even lifeless in the face of this mess.
Says Macy, “Of all the dangers we face, from climate chaos to nuclear war, none is so great as the deadening of our response.”
A few moments ago, I read the first 12 verses of the gospel of John. What might that have to do with active hope?
This poetic prologue from John’s community is a wondrous, mystical presentation of the coming of the intangible divine into the tangible Incarnate world. In this case, through the person of Jesus. This miracle of incarnation may be the greatest genius of Christianity, having the Word, the Living Wisdom, the deep invisible life-giving wisdom of all things somehow become flesh, become Incarnate, become real in human life and the life of the creation.
We can talk about high theory and mighty ideals and about grand design and expansive patterns, but that does not matter much to the life of Creation unless it is embodied and expressed and lived out in this complex messy world. It is one thing to talk about love and another to live it out, to incarnate it. In John's prologue we have this amazing poetic summation that the Word became flesh and lived with the people. “And the darkness could not overcome it,” says John.
Active hope is like that. Incarnate. Fleshy. Earthy.
It's like bringing these great aspirations right down into the messiness and even the darkness of the world in our lives. It is about choosing faith, choosing a trust in the way of Jesus and the good news of God even though the outcome is uncertain at best and doubtful at worst. Our tradition is full of situations where it seems there is no way, but somehow God makes a way when the people act. There were the Hebrew people chased by pharaoh's army and pinned up against a great body of water with nowhere to go, but, as the Jewish interpretive story says God made a way after someone went into the water up to their neck. There was the story of Jesus surrounded by an angry mob in his hometown intent on throwing him off a cliff, but somehow Jesus moved and passed through them. There was a woman named Rosa who sat down on a bus where she was not supposed to sit, where they said she would never be allowed to sit, yet somehow she sat, Spirit moved, and the people of color found a way to act into their hopes and, indeed, did sit in the front of the bus, and then vote, and go to any school.
Learning and practicing active hope is timely for there are many reasons to not hope if one is basing hope on the likelihood of a good outcome. Yet, our faith tradition doesn’t say that life is easy or that life unfolds with simple, predictable steps of linear progress toward goodness and liberation, especially in times like these.
The irony here is that finding Active Hope, facing problems, those seemingly intractable difficulties, asks us not to focus first on the problems, on what is wrong, but on what is right, what is worthy, what is beautiful, what is of value that is already present.
Active Hope invites us to build the base of our reality with gratitude. And like Active Hope itself, gratitude is a practice, a learnable way of seeing and living. Gratitude is a basic spiritual practice across traditions. It is the valuing of what is already present that inspires us to protect it, to act for it, to make the changes necessary to nurture it and preserve it.
How important is acting for that vision now? How urgent?
The environmental activist Bill McKibben had a cover story on Rolling Stone magazine a few years ago and then went on what he called a Do the Math tour around the nation. He proclaimed the simple math: according to climate researchers at that time, we could burn 565 more gigatons of carbon and stay below 2°C of warming — anything more than that risks catastrophe for life on earth. Fossil fuel corporations then had 2,795 gigatons in their reserves, five times the safe amount. At the known rates of consumption, McKibben and others, calculated the years we had left to act decisively. Now it would be only about 8 years or so in which to make significant change.
We need hope, my friends, to respond faithfully to our situation and we need it to be active hope.
Oh, and in case you might have forgotten, in July of 2021 the company sponsoring the Keystone XL pipeline declared the project dead.
So remember, our stories of faith are full of people wondering how they would continue, how they would find a way where there was no way, how they would get through a tight spot. Our stories of faith are full of ordinary people just like us, doubting and limited, but who found a way through by sharing God’s hopes and then acting them into being such that the darkness could not overcome their active hope.
7th Sunday after Pentecost
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
Intro: Our text today from the Gospel of Matthew comes after Jesus has been baptized by John and has spent his time of retreat and trial in the wilderness. He has just emerged from that experience to discover what is happening with John and to begin his own ministry of preaching and teaching and healing.
12Now when Jesus heard that John was arrested, he went to Galilee. 13He left Nazareth and settled in Capernaum, which lies alongside the sea in the area of [the ancient tribes of] Zebulun and Naphtali. 14This fulfilled what Isaiah the prophet said:
15Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, alongside the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles, 16the people who lived in the dark have seen a great light, and a light has come upon those who lived in the region and in shadow of death.
17From that time Jesus began to announce, "Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!"
Bible, Common English. CEB Common English Bible with Apocrypha - eBook [ePub] (Kindle Locations 37965-37972). Common English Bible. Kindle Edition.
For the Word of God in scripture, for the word of God among us,
for the Word of God within us…Thanks be to God!
I was in high school when David Bowie’s “Changes” came out in 1972. I’m sure I heard it but didn’t really notice it. I was listening to Loggins and Messina, Carole King, John Denver with a little Allman Brothers thrown in. Now, thanks to our Director of Music, Mark Heiskenen, I have finally fully encountered and read the lyrics to David Bowie’s “Changes.” And watched him perform it live on YouTube. I’ve always been a late bloomer.
(Turn and face the strain)
(Don't want to be a richer man)
(Turn and face the strain)
(Just gonna have to be a different man)[i]
So goes the first refrain. The literature nerd in me wants to analyze the meaning of all the poetry in Bowie’s song, but I will spare you. Suffice it to say…. the song is about facing change and facing it within ourselves before and along with facing it in culture, in the world we live in. Facing change within to create change the without. And there’s a bit about the resistance we face from the world when we face into change.
Jesus could have sung along with Bowie as he faced into ministry and headed out of the solitude of the wilderness into the chaos of society. “Don’t want to be a richer man; turn and face the strain; just gonna be a different man; ch-ch-changes.” He was getting ready to face off with the powers of empire and establishment as he called God’s people to the vision of the kingdom of heaven. Other gospel writers use the phrase, the kingdom of God; Matthew, good Jewish Christian that he was, defers to kingdom of heaven instead because Holy One’s name is too mighty to even pronounce. Either way, Jesus is proclaiming a new vision of God being in the world and with the world. It is at hand, its near! It’s not a place…it’s a way of being in God’s ways, a way of living, and the time for it is now!
Now we know from family systems theory that when one person in a system decides to change, to grow up, to mature and to be as healthy as possible, to stop enabling the dis-ease of the family or the community, that resistance occurs. Oddly, the system, the community resists healthful change at first, before it can spread its healing power throughout the whole system. Jesus certainly experiences that resistance throughout his ministry. He is proclaiming God’s ways “to those who have treated God’s sovereignty with disdain.”[ii] John the Baptist has experienced that resistance as he proclaimed Jesus’ coming, preaching the new vision of the kingdom of God. He has been arrested and we know he will be executed, a foreshadowing of what is to come for Jesus. The powers of the worlds, those who disdain God’s ways, do NOT like change, do they? They like to move comfortably in their habits of greed, oppression, patriarchy and fear without challenge. Too Bad, says Jesus! Those are not the ways of God! There is a new way of justice, compassion, healing and love! It is God’s way and it is here! Time to change!
Too Bad, we say as the followers of Jesus. Bullying, lying, excluding others, scarcity thinking, greed these are not the ways of God! Poverty, hunger, homelessness, lack of healthcare, these are not the ways of God! God’s ways are compassion, inclusion of all, abundance, enough resources, food and shelter for all, listening to every voice! Things need to change! And as we proclaim God’s ways we too meet/ have met resistance.
Change…..we are weary of change and of proclaiming change in so many ways. Yet it is the stuff of life. How do we come alongside the changes God is calling us to proclaime in life-giving ways rather than life draining ways? I recently Octavia Butler’s sci-fi novel, The Parable of the Sower. Published in 1993 and set in the years 2024-2027, it is powerful and prophetic. Times are apocalyptic, climate change and destruction, political upheaval so devastating that people must live in walled communities for protection, unchecked violence is everywhere, water is precious and expensive. As the protagonist, a Black teenage young woman, observes civilization crumbling around her, she begins to write verses of observation to stay hopeful. “All that you touch You Change. All that you Change Changes you. The only lasting truth is Change. God is Change.” “We do not worship God. We perceive and attend God. We learn from God. With forethought and work, We shape God. In the end we yield to God. We adapt and endure…. And God is Change.”[iii]
Now I’m still chewing theologically on the assertion “God is Change…. Shape God.” Yes,…. and I’m not sure I can or want to sum up God in that one word. However, it got me thinking about the change that we are facing in our world here in 2022. Climate change, political upheaval, gun violence, pandemic…. scary changes. AND there are miraculous changes at work in our world as well, some made by human hands and some within the very systems of the natural world. So how do we live and work with the changes of our world proclaiming and manifesting the kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed? How can we come alongside change so that even if it feels like upheaval, it is life-giving, full of justice and non-violent truth-telling?
Pondering these questions, Spirit led as Spirit does in sometimes circuitous routes to a system of “social change work” that is vital and happening in our country called, “emergent strategy.” Emergent strategy has been developed particularly by women and people of color as well as our sisters and brothers in the LGBTQ community. I think its time we let those who have been marginalized take the lead. I want to learn from them. I am learning from the book, Emergent Strategy, Shaping Change, Changing Worlds by adrienne maree brown. brown, a social justice facilitator of twenty-five plus years, healer, writer and doula, asks: “what can [the natural world] teach us about how to be humans and how to be humans in a better relationship with each other?” What emerges from brown’s question is “emergent strategy,” ways of change for our time. Ways of change that, I believe, go hand in hand with the ways of the kingdom of heaven which is at hand and among us!” Indulge me as I briefly explain her work a bit more because it this way of change-making will be informing my preaching in the months to come.
“Emergence,” says brown in a podcast interview, “is the way complex systems and patterns arise out of relatively simple interactions. Strategy is the ability to adapt to changing conditions, while still moving towards our vision of freedom and the future and being in [the practice of emergence.] … how do we get in a right relationship with change that allows us to harness and shape things, towards community, towards liberation, towards justice?”[iv] And the strategic practices of change are taken from creation.
What if we look at the marvel of communication that happens in flocks of birds, such as a murmuration of starlings which can be huge, upwards of over a million birds at a time. I’m not sure I have seen one live in the world, but I have seen videos. “They move in synch with one another, engaging in clear, consistent communication and exhibiting collective leadership and deep, deep trust. Every bird focuses attention on their seven closest neighbors and thus manage the larger flock cohesiveness and synchronicity.”[v] Wow, it’s all about relationship, not policy! Or perhaps, the policy is in the relationship! The kingdom of heaven is at hand and is like a murmuration of starlings! How can we work like that as church?
Or consider a stand of oak trees surviving the fiercest hurricane winds, such as Hurricane Katrina, because their roots are so intertwined underground in life-giving care for and communication with one another? Or the underground mycelial network of mushrooms that not only creates communication, but food for the growing mushrooms above ground as it also detoxifies the soil? The kingdom of heaven is relationship like oak trees and mushrooms! So, I ask myself, how can we learn emergent strategic systems of change from these miraculous, yet ordinary, beautiful relationships of nature to be a better outpost for the realm of God, a better church community turning to face the strain of change as our friend, David Bowie prompts us?
Change is within us, upon us and we cannot hide, can we? God has given us the leadership of Jesus’s call…. “Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!" God gives us the spiritual imagination and social justice intelligence of change leaders such as adrienne maree brown, the prophetic imagination of writers like Octavia Butler. The world is at a tipping point, longing for relationship leadership, ripe for the justice of non-violent change-making that works with creation not against it. God’s realm is at hand, upon us, we are in it NOW!
So, I leave you with this challenge, look and see how Spirit is among us transforming our hearts and lives through relationship and communication for the challenge of the kingdom of heaven. It’s already happening! And how can we strengthen our changing community in new and vital ways, such as emergent strategy, so that we focus on the kindom of heaven rather than majoring on minor issues that can pre-occupy our time out of fear and lack of vision?
(Turn and face the strain)
Jesus is calling, calling us to be the change we want to see! The kingdom heaven is coming!
©The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson 2022 and beyond. May be reprinted only with permission.
[i] David Bowie, “Changes” on YouTube
[ii] Douglas R.A. Hare, Matthew: Interpretation Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, (Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville, KY, 2009, 29.)
[iii] Octavia Butler, The Parable of the Sower ebook, (Open Road Integrated Media: New York, NY, 2012, 10, 63.)
[v] adrienne maree brown, Emergent Strategy, Shaping Change, Changing Worlds, (AK Press: Chico, CA, 2017, 67.)
Sermon related to Exodus 3:13-15
We are a tradition of continuing revelation. Spirit comes to us as an unfolding of new understandings of faith, new expressions of faithful living, and the opening of possibilities for compassion in action.
But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” 14 God said to Moses, “I am who I am.”[a] He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’ ” 15 God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord,[b] the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’:
This is my name forever,
and this my title for all generations.
For the Word of God in Scripture
For the Word of God among us
For the Word of God within us
Thanks be to God
The Rev. Otis Moss the III stepped to the podium. Over 3,000 of us at our 2009 national UCC gathering quieted ourselves to listen. Starting off slowly, as is often the case with the style of preaching common in many African American churches, the Senior Minister of Trinity UCC in Chicago, picked up speed as he spoke of punctuation.
That’s right, punctuation. Isn’t that inspiring and exciting? Yes, punctuation; Semi colons, quotation marks, apostrophes, parentheses, and….hold on to your seat….. brackets!
But punctuation can be relevant and inspiring when the dominant story, the status quo power or culture or system insists on a period while the Good News of God insists on a comma. To the drug addict to whom the incarceration system says ‘three strikes and you are out,” period, the Good News of God says, comma, change your direction, comma, "God is making all things new." To the Hebrews enslaved, Pharaoh says work without rest or wage for the Empire, period, but the Good News of God says, comma, "together you shall walk out of bondage," comma, together you shall journey to liberation and a new way of community. To the teacher and healer and prophet Jesus, the Roman Empire said, your way is ended, period, the Good News of God says, comma, not so fast, comma, there is life and resurrection stronger than death, comma, stronger than violence and the desire to dominate. To the broken spirit whose inner critical voice says, that’s it, there’s no hope for you, no meaning, period, the Good News of God says, comma, “my Grace is sufficient,” comma, “nothing is impossible for God.”
This is the kind of proclamation by the Rev. Moss that had us on our feet by the end of his sermon as we felt the Spirit flow through his speaking that our God is in the comma business of making things new, healed and hopeful, and resistant to the period makers of the world, those who choose and serve a status quo of fear, hard-heartedness, injustice and cynicism.
I recently thought of that message delivered by Rev. Moss because it still lives in me, especially when I feel or I see the drift toward hopelessness and loss of possibility. I feel and see that drift now. Climate change marches on, women’s rights to control their bodies is curtailed, aggressive war mongers on the march, the weapons of war sold to angry and hopeless citizens and then tragically used for mayhem and mass death.
Over twenty years ago our national denomination, the United Church of Christ, was looking for a phrase to define itself. They found the perfect words from the late Gracie Allen, the wife and comic partner of the late comedian George Burns. A brilliant and perceptive woman in her own right, she left a message in her papers to be discovered by her husband after her death that has become the motto for the United Church of Christ: “Never put a period where God has placed a comma.”
Gracie was encouraging George to remember that life had many chapters. George was 68 when Gracie died. Rather than place a period after his career, Burns went on to star in a number of movies, including playing God, twice. He died at age 100, having lived the life of the comma.
Our faith is that kind of faith. Our church is that kind of church. Because many of us come from other kinds of churches or may have few connections with the larger network that we are as UCC’ers, I’d like to share about how a characteristic way of being together as the United Church of Christ embodies more of a comma faith than one of periods, one where Spirit writes new chapters, where Spirit comes to us as an unfolding of new understandings, new expressions of faithful living, and new possibilities for compassion and justice in action.
There are threads of this comma faith woven into the UCC fabric from all the branches of our family tree that came together in 1957 to become one network. And it comes right out of our ancient faith stories in Scripture.
Our Scripture story today has Moses at work. Perhaps Moses just wanted an ordinary day at work, a simple day of watching and wandering with the sheep, period. But Spirit seemed to have a different plan. The bush that was burning, comma, but was not consumed, appeared to him and he turned aside to an encounter with God. In this encounter, Moses asks the name of God. In these ancient stories, having the true or secret name of the deity, gave power to the namer to invoke and use the deity’s power. And, here, God refuses to be boxed in by a simple title, a single nature or power, or even by time. The Hebrew wordplay here can be translated as “I am what I am,” “I will be who I will be,” or, most simply, “I will be whoever I will be.” God even refuses to box God’s Self in with a name. No periods here, just a commas. God is free to become and be.
This is all about commas, all about an openness to the Divine Mystery of what might be coming, what might emerge, what might be needed, what might be chosen, what new thing might be revealed.
While reflective and rational Greek philosophy leaned toward a more static even impassive understanding of the Divine (the all everything list), and that strongly influenced Christian tradition in the reading of Scripture, Hebrew understandings of God actually were more about the lived experience of God and were open to the Divine as moving, morphing, and changing. Like the Hebrew people themselves journeying to the Promised Land or back from exile, or like the families of Abraham and Sarah, or Ruth and Naomi, or Joseph and Mary, or like the Wise Ones from the East following a star, it seems the people were on an unfolding journey, discerning the new place that Spirit called them to go in order to serve life at that time, in that situation.
In Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, where he is portrayed by Matthew’s community as the new Moses, you can hear the new being indicated by the phrase, "You have heard it said, (comma) but I say……" There is innovation here, going beyond something like "eye for any eye," which in its day helped stop escalating revenge cycles, to something that went into the inner work that stops cycles of revenge and separation altogether, "love your enemy."
You see, although our Bible has a back cover, and the tradition has not admitted new books into the Bible for over a millennium and a half, that does not mean that God is mute, that Spirit stopped moving or speaking at the time of Jesus or the time of Moses.
God is still Speaking, we say.
And we, as the UCC, are trying to listen. We have done it before.
In 1620, on their way to North America, pilgrims seeking spiritual freedom heard their pastor, John Robinson, say “God has yet more light and truth to break forth out of his holy Word." This is a statement of the continuing revelation that is characteristic of the UCC, the assumption that there is more understanding to come. It is a way of seeking and holding truth that keeps us open to reading our Scriptures and mining our tradition in new ways as our understandings and experience change. This kind of way has encouraged us, not exclusively, but characteristically to be on the cutting edge of social change in the church.
Congregationalists were among the first Americans to take a stand against slavery. In 1700, the Rev. Samuel Sewall wrote the first anti-slavery pamphlet in America, "The Selling of Joseph" laying the foundation for the abolitionist movement that came more than a century later. In 1773, five thousand angry colonists gathered in the Old South Meeting House in Boston to demand repeal of an unjust tax on tea and inspired what might be called the first act of civil disobedience in U.S. history—the "Boston Tea Party."
In 1773, a young member of the Old South congregation, Phillis Wheatley, becomes the first published African American author. Poems on Various Subjects was a sensation, and Wheatley gained her freedom from slavery soon after. In 1785, Lemuel Haynes is the first African American ordained by a Protestant denomination. In 1839, enslaved Africans broke their chains and seized control of the schooner Amistad. Their freedom was short-lived, and they were held in a Connecticut jail while the ship's owners sued to have them returned as property. But Congregationalists and other Christians organized a campaign to free the captives. The case became a defining moment for the movement to abolish slavery as the Supreme Court ruled the captives are not property, and the Africans regain their freedom.
In 1840, a meeting of pastors in Missouri formed the first united church in U.S. history—the Evangelical Synod. It united two Protestant traditions that had been separated for centuries: Lutheran and Reformed. In 1846, Lewis Tappan, one of the Amistad anti-slavery organizers, organized the American Missionary Association--the first anti-slavery society in the U.S. with multiracial leadership. In 1853, Antoinette Brown became the first woman since New Testament times ordained as a Christian minister, and perhaps the first woman in history elected to serve a Christian congregation as pastor. In 1897, Congregationalist Washington Gladden was one of the first leaders of the Social Gospel movement—which denounced injustice and the exploitation of the poor amidst a new industrializing and urbanizing society.
In 1959, Southern television stations impose a news blackout on the growing civil rights movement, and Martin Luther King Jr. asked the UCC to intervene. Everett Parker of the UCC's Office of Communication organizes churches and won in Federal court a ruling that the airwaves are public, not private property. In 1972, the UCC's Golden Gate Association ordained the first openly gay person as a minister in a mainline Protestant denomination: the Rev. William R. Johnson. In 1976, General Synod elected the Rev. Joseph H. Evans president of the United Church of Christ, the first African American leader of a racially integrated mainline church in the United States. In 1995, the United Church of Christ publishes The New Century Hymnal—the only hymnal released by a Christian church that honored in equal measure both male and female images of God. In 2005, the General Synod called for full Marriage Equality, marking the first time that one of the nation's mainline churches expressed support of marriages for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons.
I share these not to boost our UCC egos, but to en-courage our spirits with so much of the country and some churches wanting to go backward, to fix the faith and the culture in a less inclusive and less just past with a period. I share this list to encourage us that the God of commas has been and is at work even amidst the current appearance of reactionary, restrictive, and violent forces.
And what about us? How is our comma faith? Where have we placed a period where God would place a comma? Where have we precluded possibility, or sidled up to cynicism, or jockeyed into judgment, or given in to impatience in such a way that we placed a period where Spirit was seeking a comma, a new way through, a re-visioned path, a resurrection?
My guess is that often we protect our hearts with the period placing energies of judgment or criticism, or of cynicism and passivity. Or we protect ourselves and calm our fears in the midst of the anxiety of change by focusing on too much order. We forget that God can work through all of this, even the right kind of chaos (“good trouble” the late John Lewis called it). We forget that God may have another timeline or another way to get where we are going.
I have not been here long enough to know the full history of Plymouth church and how you have found ways to do something and become something that others would have thought not possible. But, I did see a video on our website where the late Ray Becker narrates the story that recounted the German speaking ancestors of this church escaping Czar Alexander II leaving their familiar homes in Russia to come all this way, that showed them starting a church without a pastor, that showed them coming together with only 64 members to build a church building and then the faith years later to sell that building and move all the way out of town to Prospect Avenue where they built the whole shell of the church themselves, where we now worship, when they had 184 members. And now, to meet a challenge to support our comma faith ministry, we raised last Monday over $75,000 to meet that goal on Plymouth Gives Day.
My friends, I know some of you have had difficult days and there may be more for you and for this country and the world. But somewhere just after the necessary, appropriate, and healthy grieving of the disappointments of our world and our lives, there is a time, there is a choice to faithfully punctuate our stories with a comma, to re-envision new possibilities of manifesting God’s Realm here on earth in your life, in northern Colorado and in Plymouth church, in the world, and then to act into the new.
As our UCC promotions often say, God is Still Speaking. Our call is to be listening and discerning and following the Still Speaking God calling us into a faith where we are placing the life-giving commas of compassion, of courage, and of creativity, where others would place the death dealing periods of complacency and complicity and resignation. We are invited into an adventure of faith where the comma is always opening us to the renewing of our minds, the reconciliation of the alienated in ourselves and others, and a re-visioning of any way of being that is less than Shalom for all Creation.
As Gracie said,
Never place a period where God has placed a comma.
“On the Road”
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning, Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
10 July 2022
Sometimes the Revised Common Lectionary provides difficult texts for ministers and congregations to grapple with, and sometimes it delivers just the right scripture. Today’s reading is Luke’s telling of the Parable of the Good Samaritan. How many of you know this parable? Some of you could probably recite it from memory — or at least deliver the punch line. Let’s see if you can help me fill in the blanks as I read this familiar text.
A legal expert stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to gain _________[eternal life]?”
Jesus replied, “What is written in the Law? How do you interpret it?”
He responded, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your _________ [neighbor as yourself.]”
Jesus said to him, “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.”
But the legal expert wanted to prove that he was right, so he said to Jesus, “And who is ___________ [my neighbor]?”
Jesus replied, “A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. He encountered thieves, who stripped him naked, beat him up, and left him near death. Now it just so happened that a _______ [priest] was also going down the same road. When he saw the injured man, he crossed over to the other side of the road and ________ [went on his way.] Likewise, a Levite came by that spot, saw the injured man, and __________ [crossed over to the other side of the road] and went on his way. A Samaritan, who was on a journey, came to where the man was. But when he saw him, he was moved with ________ [compassion]. The Samaritan went to him and bandaged his wounds, tending them with oil and wine. Then he placed the wounded man on his own donkey, took him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day, he took two full days’ worth of wages and gave them to the innkeeper. He said, ‘Take care of him, and when I return, I will pay you back for any additional costs.’ What do you think? Which one of these three was a neighbor to the man who encountered thieves?”
Then the legal expert said, “The one who demonstrated __________ [mercy/compassion] toward him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and _______ [do likewise].”
For the word of God in scripture, for the word of God among us, for the word of God within us…Thanks be to God.
This is an important text, and I want to do it justice by not delivering a sermon that conveys the same message some of you have heard since childhood: Be good to strangers and be merciful to those who are injured.
The parable is not a guideline for how to be a good citizen of the empire by being quiescent and nice…it is a countercultural wisdom tale about subversive behavior in the kingdom of God or in Beloved Community, which we hear about both in our strategic plan and in this year’s Leadership Council theme, which is “extending and embracing Beloved Community.” That concept, developed by Josiah Royce and picked up by Dr. King is not about being nice, it’s about getting real and grounding our behavior not in self-interest, which is the American Way, but for the good of all God’s people — whether Jew or Samaritan. It also means speaking the truth in love, even when it’s uncomfortable.
This was a spicy parable for the people who heard Jesus tell it, because they likely thought that the only good Samaritan was a dead Samaritan. Imagine if this parable was set in the Donbas region of Ukraine. An Orthodox priest passes along a war-torn street and sees a man injured on the side of the road, but he is on his way to say the liturgy, so he crosses to the other side of the road. Then a Ukrainian paramilitary is rushing to get a message to his commanding officer, but when he sees the injured man, he also crosses over. But then a Russian soldier sees the wounded Ukrainian man and picks him up, dresses his wounds, and brings him to a small hotel and pays for his care and lodging.
That is what a Jewish audience would have thought about a “Good” Samaritan. A very unlikely hero.
Over the last 20 years of my ministry at Plymouth, I have seen a handful of unlikely heroes in our midst. People who, among so many other acts of compassion, start a kindergarten in Ethiopia. A busy young mother of two and an attorney who makes time to chair our Strategic Planning Team and to be Plymouth’s incoming moderator. An older couple who could have rested on their laurels enjoying their retirement years, but instead chose to invest their time and money in starting girls’ schools in Angola. An old soul who embraces life in spite of a crummy cancer diagnosis and persists in celebrating life and sharing joy with others. Deacons who care so much about your experience of worship and your health and safety that they cleaned all of the restrooms after every in-person worship in the pit of the pandemic. Teams who pursue immigration justice and stand against gun violence. I could go on…there are many examples I don’t have time to cite.
We are a congregation that is filled with unlikely heroes. I have learned so much from some of you about what being Beloved Community looks like: not caring for self-interest, but doing what is right, even when it is costly.
Some translations of this parable use the English word “mercy” as the primary motivation of the Samaritan. But it isn’t “mercy” is it? Mercy is what an authority figure can bestow upon a victim or a wrongdoer. It isn’t mercy that drives the Samaritan or any of the unlikely heroes at Plymouth…it’s compassion. It is acting after sensing the pain, the need, the possible opportunity of others.
My mentor, Marcus Borg, wrote, “Jesus disclosed that God is compassionate. Jesus spoke of God that way: ‘Be compassionate, as God is compassionate.’ Compassion is the primary quality of the central figures in two of his most famous parables: the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan. And Jesus himself, as a manifestation of the sacred, is often spoken of as embodying compassion.”
Marcus went further than that in saying that Jesus replaced the core value of ritual purity in the Judaism of his day with the core value of compassion. The problem is that over the last 2,000 the church universal has a pretty miserable record of showing compassion, especially to people with whom they disagree. Whether it is a Crusade or an Inquisition or quiescence during the Holocaust, many Christians are unable or unwilling to operate out of a sense of self-risking courage to be compassionate.
Courage is an underrated Christian value, and it is a precondition of compassion. Without courage, we won’t keep looking at the wounded man on the side of the road, who could be dead or contagious or violent. Our courage enables our compassion by giving us the drive to risk and to move ahead.
But if compassion is at the heart of God, if it is embodied by Jesus as the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, what keeps us from making it our universal rule of faith? I think sometimes we lack courage. This is true for me and perhaps for you, too: We sometimes get so comfortable with our low-risk lives that we don’t want to rock the boat, or we are overwhelmed by our own fear of illness or death, or we spend our energy on petty complaints that are of no real consequence. Like every church, we’ve experienced some conflicts over the years of pandemic that matter have distracted some of us from being either faithful or compassionate. When we lack courage, when we let fear get the best of us, we resort to pass-through communication, triangulation, and gossip.
Twenty years from now our petty squabbles will be forgotten…but the acts of courage and compassion wrought by members of this church will persist in the lives of people within the church and far, far beyond it. Yours are the examples that warm my heart and the hearts of others. They are the living testaments to courage that inspire me and inspire others to be courageous.
Churches around the country are in a time of transition and rebuilding, and it will take patience, wisdom, and grace to be church in the coming years. That is why the concept of Beloved Community is so critical for Plymouth to remain vital and healthy.
Since I’ll be away for a month of vacation and three months of sabbatical, I thought I’d leave you with three invitations from this parable:
© 2022 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact email@example.com for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
 Marcus Borg, Speaking Christian