August 26, 2018- Jubilee Sunday
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. 11 Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 12 For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. 13 Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. 14 Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. 15 As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. 16 With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
18 Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints. 19 Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.
This morning we are welcoming you back to our fall schedule of worship and classes. And we are kicking off our sermon series on Thorny Theological Themes by considering discipleship.
Our wonderful Communications Coordinator, Anna Broskie, sent me this little discipleship cartoon this week knowing the theme of the sermon. It’s a good way to get our consideration of discipleship going this morning..... [Meme shared from Unvirtuous Abbey]
What is discipleship? I think it’s a tough concept for contemporary progressive Christians. It can have negative connotations. It can feel like more pressure to save the world single-handedly through doing the right thing, volunteering enough, giving enough. Yet discipleship is more than good works, volunteering enough, giving “enough” –- whatever enough is –- of time, talent or treasure. It is more than blandly following the latest Jesus news as if on Facebook or Twitter as our little cartoon shows. It is about relationship with God through Jesus, the man of Nazareth and the Risen Christ. The works, the giving of time talent and treasure, come out of relationship.
There is a widely recognized anecdote about President Abraham Lincoln. While he was reportedly not a church-goer he was a man of deep, if at times unorthodox, faith. During the Civil War Lincoln met with a group of ministers for a prayer breakfast. At one point one of the ministers said, “Mr. President, let us pray that God is on our side.” To which Lincoln replied, “No, gentlemen, let us pray that we are on God’s side.” The President knew that religion is not a tool by which we get God to do what we want but an invitation to open ourselves to being and doing what God wants. We open ourselves to being immersed in the ways of God so we are on God’s side. And how will we know how to be on God’s side unless we are in relationship with God.
Our Plymouth mission statement affirms that we are disciples committed to being on God’s side. Our mission is “to worship God and help make God’s realm visible in the lives of people, individually and collectively, especially as it is set forth in the life, teachings, death, and living presence of Jesus Christ.” As any good mission statement it states the big picture. What about the nitty-gritty of our everyday lives? What about the nitty-gritty of our everyday political scene? What about the nitty-gritty of the everyday lives of the homeless, the immigrant, the stranger, the hungry, the oppressed, the enemy, whom God calls us through Jesus to name and love as our beloved brothers and sisters?
The first century Christians in the church in Ephesus were in a similar boat as we are when it comes to the nitty-gritty of being disciples, followers of Jesus. Ephesians is a letter encouraging church people to stand firm as disciples in a time of persecution. During the latter third of the first century when this letter was written Christianity was in essence illegal. Christians confessed that Jesus was Lord, not that Caesar was lord. They refused to make sacrifices to Caesar and Caesar’s gods. The Roman empire was not the be all and end all. First century Christians practiced pacifism and non-violent resistance to the injustices of the empire. As disciples of Jesus they proclaimed God’s power of love that brought peace and justice.
This conflicted directly with the status quo recognition of power as military might and peace that was achieved through conquering the “other.” This is why our letter writer exhorts fellow Christians to spiritual battle, not battle against forces of blood and flesh. They were to stand firm in God’s power, resisting with God’s ways the systems of their society –- systems co-opted by false power, power that works through greed, fear, coercion and submission, rather than power that empowers people for the good of all. Does this context sound even the least bit familiar?
I know that some of us may squirm a bit at the idea of warfare at all....even if spiritual. We know that Christians throughout the centuries are not blameless when it comes to being caught up in false power and fear. Our Christian history is checkered with wars fought supposedly in the name of Christ, but were really in the pursuit of false power for a king or country or the church itself. May we ask forgiveness for the sins of our history.
The good news, friends, is that the writer of the book of Ephesians is actually turning the metaphor of warfare and armor inside out and upside down affirming that the life of discipleship is lived in the nitty-gritty, in the best of times, worst of times life with God. God is already in our lives. The letter writer calls us to wake up and recognize God in the midst of our lives so we are on the side of God –- which may or may not be what we think it should be. This is discipleship –- standing firm with God in resistance to false power and evil deeds.
In ironic –- and glorious -– contrast to the armored Roman soldiers who kept the peace with spear and sword, with external authority from the empire, we are to be immersed in God and have the internal authority of God’s Spirit. Consider what it might mean in your life to put on God’s belt of Truth rather than the leather belt of war. God’s truth that reveals through love the true nature of the cosmos, the creation and of each beloved child of God. How could the belt of truth inform your actions and your spirit when confronted with lies or falsehood? Could knowing the truth of love help you hold boundaries, speak kindly but firmly, not return anger for anger? How could the breastplate of righteousness -– the protective covering of God’s spirit of right living through compassion, justice, and equality -– inform not only large responses to injustice in our world, but also small acts of kindness when you see the clerk in the store, the other student on the playground, the co-worker with less confidence, bullied, teased, or laughed at?
And what kind of shoes give you the firmest foundation to be your unique self made in God’s image? Think literally for a moment.....What are your favorite most comfortable shoes, shoes that make you feel fully alive and fully who you are? Running shoes, dancing shoes, cowboy boots, Birkenstocks, Tevas, hiking boots or work boots, sparkly red patin leather shoes, spiky heels, sensible flats, wingtips, loafers, sandals? Our shoes can literally reflect the essence of we are. What “shoes,” what foundation in God’s ways, do you need so you move freely, swiftly, comfortably to proclaim God’s peace in your one wild and precious life?
How is your shield of faith? Has it been formed through prayer and study so that it is transparent with compassion, yet tough as nails? Our faith -– our living into the mystery of God’s presence in spite of and because of our doubts and questions –- is our protection as we stand firm in the struggle against false power. Our shield of faith keeps us keeping on even when we are dead tired and exhausted to the point of despair. Our shield is God’s power of love as we proclaim a message subversive to the world of greed and fear. And do you have the sword of God, which is the word of God living in us. The word of God as the sword of God has been improperly translated to be the Bible as a set of infallible laws used to bash people over the head and into submission to God. This is not the word of God the letter writer is invoking. The Bible as we know it was not yet in existence! The Word of God that the letter writer invokes your personal proclamation of God, your spoken and lived word of God’s life and love. How will your words and your actions cut through division and hate, with understanding and diplomacy, to proclaim God’s realm made visible in the world?
Discipleship, my friends, is standing firm, in full commitment to relationship with God, standing firm, rather than going with the flow of culture, as we are immersed in God’s ways.
Soren Kirkegaard, the 19th century existentialist philosopher and theologian, told a story about discipleship.
It seems there was a small town whose most revered citizen was not the mayor of the doctor or the minister, but the fire chief. One day a particularly large fire broke out in town. The fire brigade rushed to the scene, but the firemen were unable to get through to the burning building. The problem was the crowd of people who had gathered not to watch but to help put out the fire. They all knew the fire chief so well -– their children had climbed over his fire engines during excursions to the fire station. The friendliness of the fire chief was legendary. So when a fire broke out the people rushed out to help their beloved fire chief.
Unfortunately the townsfolk were seeking to extinguish this raging inferno with water pistols! Squirt guns! They all stood there, from time to time squirting their pistol into the fire while making casual conversation. The fire chief couldn’t contain himself. He started screaming at the townsfolk. “What do you think you’re doing? What on earth do you think you’re going to achieve with those water pistols?!”
The people realized the urgency of the situation. How they wanted to help the fire chief! So they started squirting more. “Come on” they encouraged each other, “We can all do better, can’t we?” Squirt, squirt, squirt, squirt.
Exasperated the fire chief yelled again. “Get out of here. You're achieving nothing except hindering us from doing what needs to be done. We need fireman who are ready to give everything they’ve got to put out this fire, people willing even to lay their lives on the line. This is not the place for token contributions”
Kierkegaard was urging us to realize that discipleship to Christ means much more than token levels of support to the church and God’s mission in the world. It calls for wholehearted and total life commitment.
As we have been encouraged by the writer of Ephesians today, let us pray together in the Spirit that we may be disciples committed whole-heartedly to following God. Let us pray for ourselves, for one another, for our work as the beloved community of Plymouth. The world needs us to follow the God we know through Jesus with our whole hearts, our whole lives, in word and deed.
©The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson, 2018 and beyond. May be reprinted with permission only.
 “Water Pistols”, http://storiesforpreaching.com/category/sermonillustrations/discipleship/
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, Associate, Minister, is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. She is also the writer of sermon-stories.com, a lectionary-based story-commentary series. Learn more about Jane Ann here.
Laura Nelson is a member of Plymouth and graduate of San Francisco Theological Seminary. She is preparing for ordained ministry.
Ephesians 4.25 – 5.2
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
Things have been a little different in the way I read and interpret scripture in the last year and a half. Instead of reading a text and wondering what it might have to say to us at Plymouth, I first wonder about the broader political implications of what the text might be saying to our politicians. We are in a different era than we were before an intransigent Congress dug in their heels and refused to do business across the aisle. Imagine if all those good Christian men and women on the Hill agreed to “put away falsehood,” “speak truth to their neighbors,” acknowledge that “they are members of one another,” to identify what makes them angry, but not “let the sun go down on their anger.” Imagine if our president, instead of losing his cool on Twitter agreed “to let no evil talk come from his cell phone” but would only tweet “what is useful for building up…so that his words may give grace to those who hear.” And what if our attorney general agreed that we should “put away all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice” in carrying out the work of the Justice Department?
You know, it’s pretty easy to point fingers and to read the admonitions of the Letter to the Church in Ephesus as being applicable to someone in Washington. It’s much more difficult for us to grapple with what they say about us.
The critique I offered of people in Washington who claim to be good Christians may be valid, but I want to return to the harder work of how this text might apply to us as well. Because there is precious little we can do to affect the behavior of folks in Washington, other than with our votes, but we do have the power to direct our own thoughts and actions here.
I think that each of us still has lots to learn in terms of good, open, honest communication, and I think that while we are a healthy congregation, we also have room to improve the way we talk to one another in the spirit of love. If we can’t do this within our congregation, God knows we won’t be able to engage people who hold political views that differ radically from our own. And at some point, that sort of dialogue may be an important task you and I will be called to engage.
“Let us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another.” Here at Plymouth we have a low sense of ecclesiology –- the theology of the nature the church itself. But when we invite people to join as members and to covenant with us, we are inviting them to be part of this body and also the church universal –- body of Christ in the world. (That’s a big deal, folks!) We may see ourselves as individuals, but I hope that we each can also learn to see ourselves as part of a larger organism, which is our church, and beyond it, the church universal.
Sometimes it is really difficult to speak the truth lovingly to our neighbor. I get that. In the family I was raised in, we avoided unpleasant conversations and topics. So, nobody talked about my mom’s alcoholism or the impact of moving the family across the country every few years. As a young adult, I learned that avoiding something -– not talking about it -– won’t make it go away. In fact, avoidance is an invitation to allow problems become worse.
Church people are probably the worst offenders when it comes to avoiding “speaking the truth to our neighbors,” because we try to be nice. And I looked through the Ten Commandments and Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and could find neither a commandment: “Thou Shalt Be Nice,” nor a Beatitude, “Blessed Are the Nice People.” So, maybe we can let go of “nice” and instead embrace compassion and speaking the truth in love.
Apparently, the author of the Letter to the Colossians (unlike my family of origin) thought that anger was an acceptable emotion, and to work through it is the way to keep it productive, and not to “let the sun go down on your anger.” Anger (like doubt) is a perfectly acceptable feeling, but it is not a healthy place to hang out forever, because it can consume your vital energy.
Healthy church systems depend on honesty, on respect for one another as the body of Christ, on speaking the truth, even when it pinches a bit and makes us uncomfortable. And the funny thing is that being open and honest can make living together so much more pleasant. You don’t have to wonder if Darlene is upset with you (or why), because she told you straight-out that she had a strong reaction to something you wrote in the Placard. And because Darlene brought this up directly with you, you had the chance to sit down with her and listen to her point of view and to describe your views more fully. Even though you and Darlene may not agree on everything, you’ve had the chance to clear the air, and you have started a pattern of healthy conversation that has ripple effects in our congregational system. We build up the body of Christ when we speak the truth to our neighbors, and when we listen lovingly.
Last week I was talking with a friend who goes to a theologically conservative Evangelical church, and we were talking about the fact that nobody –- none of us –- has our act together, that all of us are dealing with stressful life situations, whether in a marriage, a career, with our kids, in our grief, our finances, our depression, our isolation. And she remarked that her pastor often says, “We’re all just walking each other home.” We all have bad things happen in our lives, and most of us are doing our best to make it through the day as best we can. I liked that phrase, “We’re all just walking each other home,” and I was curious about where it came from. So, I did what any self-respecting minister would do: I Googled it. It turns out that the quotation comes from Ram Dass, the American guru who was popular with people of my age or a little older. So, whether you’re an Evangelical, or a Hindu, or a UCC member, we can acknowledge that “We are all just walking each other home.”
After hearing that I also reflected a bit more about Ray Becker, whose funeral I had the privilege of leading last Tuesday. Ray was a compassionate and a peaceful spirit who was the unofficial patriarch of Plymouth. Ray was born here in Fort Collins in 1925, lived through the Great Depression, served as a surgical technician on a troop ship ferrying wounded servicemen back from Europe in the Second World War, and was a meat cutter and eventually Meat Department manager at Safeway. Ray was supportive of a lot of changes at Plymouth that his parents’ generation were not, and he also had the gift of being able to disagree with people without becoming disagreeable.
I also had a fascinating conversation after the service with Joe Grassmick, who attended Ray’s funeral and was visiting from his home in Buffalo, NY, where he is a member of an inner-city UCC church. Ray was Joe’s Sunday School teacher, and Joe’s dad, Veldon Grassmick, was the minister here at Plymouth in the 1950s. Three monumental shifts happened under his pastorate here at Plymouth, and they did not happen without controversy: we gradually switched our worshipping language from German to English, we became part of the UCC in 1957, and we moved our home from Whedbee Street to this location on Prospect Road. That is a LOT of change! Joe told me that Ray was one of his dad’s right-hand men because he knew that if Plymouth was to thrive, it would need to attract younger people, to broaden its reach, and to move into a larger location. And it wasn’t easy. The older generation didn’t like those changes, and they lost members when they moved down to this site. People complained that the new location was so far south that was clear out of town; they complained that there would be a Fellowship Hall, because that might encourage fraternization and dancing, and what would we possibly do with three whole acres?!
So, I learned something after the funeral: it turns out that Ray was one of the people in his generation at Plymouth who knew how to speak truth to his neighbors.
I think we all can learn something from that example: to speak “what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that our words may give grace to those who hear.” We can speak the truths that need to be spoken and to do that in a grace-filled and loving way, because “We’re all just walking each other home.”
So maybe when we get snared by “bitterness and wrath and wrangling and slander, together with malice,” it might be a good time to ask what is really going on. Is there something in us that is getting triggered by something someone else said or did? Maybe it’s time to take some deep breaths, say a word of prayer, and try to “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving,” and also honest and forthright. And to speak the truth to our neighbor.
Back in 1629, our Congregational Puritan forbears had a covenant that members entered as they became part of that church in Salem, Massachusetts, (which is now a Unitarian congregation):
“We Covenant with the Lord and one with another; and do bind our selves in the presence of God, to walk together in all his waies, according as he is pleased to reveale himselfe unto us in his Blessed word of truth.”
Today at Plymouth, we are part of the body of Christ in the world, we are an outpost of the kingdom of God, and Plymouth itself is a body of people who are in covenant with one another “to walk together in all God’s ways” and to walk each other home. And the best and healthiest way to build the spiritual depth of this congregation is to “learn to speak the truth to our neighbors,” “put away bitterness,” “forgive one another,” and “live in love.”
May it be so. Amen.
© 2018 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
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.