The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
This is one of many stories in the Bible with a nameless female character…of course, she had a name, but the writer of Luke’s gospel doesn’t convey her identity, except that she was “bent over” and “unable to stand up straight.” I can’t fully imagine what it must have been like to live life doubled-over like that. It must have been painful to walk, to sleep, to do anything. [demonstrate] Can you imagine what the world looks like if you are bent over in that position? It would certainly be difficult to look at someone during a conversation. What would you see? You’d see the dirt and the dust on people’s feet. You might catch a glimpse of the sun or the sky if you turned sideways. Suffice it to say that your field of vision would be severely different that if you were standing straight and tall.
Did you notice that the woman doesn’t ask Jesus to heal her? He simply says, “You are healed from your ailment.” Perhaps she had given up hope of being healed. Perhaps she felt as though she was not entitled to a healing by Jesus. Maybe she didn’t know his reputation as a healer. I wonder if, after eighteen years, she had come to accept her condition as “her new normal.”
What are the parts of your life that need healing? Maybe, like me, you have a physical illness that is holding you back. Or perhaps you have a personality trait that you know is anything but helpful, but it just seems to be part of you. Could it be that you are experiencing a way of living that you’ve come to accept when in truth it could possibly be changed? Healing can take many forms, whether curative or restorative, as it was for the woman in this healing story, or it can mean coming fully into relationship with God, with self, and with others.
One of the things that plagues our congregation is the sin of self-reliance. We are a church full of real doers who are used to making a difference, and we are successful and accomplished in many different ways. Now, you may say, “Hal, that sounds like a blessing, rather than a sin.” And I think that our Protestant work ethic would affirm your assertion. And I call it a sin because I know it so well in my own life. I am so good at keeping things together, at maintaining control, at doing the right thing. I do that to such an extent that sometimes I forget to rely on God…at least until things begin to fall apart. One of the things that having a recurrence of cancer has taught me is that there are parts of our lives over which we are not in control.
There is an old Dutch aphorism that says, “If your little boat is about to be dashed against the rocks in a storm, row with all your strength and pray with all your might.” So, it’s not just a matter of letting it all be in God’s hands – we have a part to play and so does God. And the serenity prayer, written by UCC minister Reinhold Niebuhr, in its original form says, “God grant me the wisdom to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, the courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.” I love that prayer, which doesn’t let us off the hook – it demands courage to change things when possible – and it asks God to be present in the midst of the process.
But what if the doubled-over woman had accepted with serenity that her physical ailment could not be changed? I suspect that sometimes God knows what is possible when we have already given up hope. Are there broken aspects of your own life that you have come to accept too readily? If so, what would it look like to give God a chance to heal that?
I know that if you read, watch, or listen to the news that it is anything but hope-filled and that there are aspects of our culture and political discourse in which we want to throw in the towel. Today, we mark the four-hundredth anniversary of African enslavement in our nation, and every American is living its legacy. We experience mass shootings, and then the memory of them sinks into the background, becoming invisible like so many other shootings. We have unproductive vitriol and flaming tweets instead of honest political dialogue and diplomacy and statesmanship. Have we given up hope of ever experiencing something different? Have we come to accept institutionalized racism and gun violence and rancid politics as the new normal?
I am never going to encourage you to stop trying to use nonviolence to change the system, but instead I am going to ask you to open yourself to the possibility of God working within us and among us — changing the way we think, feel, and act. I invite you to open yourself to the possibility of God healing you and healing the world.
What if we could be agents of God and God’s healing? What if we open ourselves to the healing power of God’s love and the realm that Jesus proclaimed in order to do what we cannot do on our own? What if God can heal the world – tikkun olam is the Hebrew phrase our Jewish sisters and brothers use for this – but what if God needs us to be agents of love and transformation?
Last week I read a wonderful meditation by the progressive Franciscan, Father Richard Rohr about nonviolent transformation. And he offered this observation: “It’s when we come to the end of our own resources that we must draw upon the Infinite Life and Love within us to do what we alone cannot do.” And if we do not draw from that unfathomably deep well of love, then we commit the sin of self-sufficiency.
Our openness to working together with God and to healing can call forth within each of us as individuals and as a congregation the transformative power of love. Emilie Townes, a womanist ethicist and dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School, writes that “Part of the gift of healing is that it can open the doors in the rooms of our lives, and healing encourages us to walk through these doors to discover the grace and hope and judgment that may be inside each room.”
Going Deeper means summoning the courage to open doors into rooms in our lives we wish we could seal forever. And Going Deeper means that we are not alone in any of those rooms, because even when we ourselves do not have the strength to face our brokenness alone, we have the healing power of God with us. And that is where we find humility as well as the grace of God.
If we are confined by our own brokenness, looking down into the dust all the time, it will be impossible for us to look forward, to envision what lies ahead, to blaze the trail that will lead us toward God’s realm of justice and peace and healing. So, let us open our hearts to God and to going deeper in the faith that binds us to reliance on the sacred.
© 2019 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
 Emilie Townes in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 3. (Louisville: WJK Press, 2010), p. 384.
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.
Hebrews 11 and 12, selected verses (scroll down to read)*
The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson
Fort Collins, CO
On August 29, 2010, I stood in this pulpit for the last time as your interim associate minister. And I preached from the same passage you just heard Harmony/Scott read. I was finishing my summer with you and Sharon Benton was returning. I did not think I would stand here again in ministry. I said to you, “It may be that our paths will not cross again in the future….or they may cross again sooner than we think…but if they do it will be a new path…this path of me working alongside you as your interim associate minister is coming to the end…to the T or the fork in the road and we will move into a different path of relationship... “
Who knew that I would be back?! I will confess that on that Sunday, I was beginning to suspect that I would be back as a church member, dating Hal. But not that I would again come to you in an interim situation .... that I would be one of your Acting Associate Ministers and then one of your settled Associate Ministers as I am now. What a blessing! What a path of faith it has been for me in these last nine years, professionally and personally. And don’t worry, I’m not going anywhere else any time soon! Still on this path! I am so blessed that you saw fit to call me to work alongside Hal and Jake – and now Hal and someone else the Spirit is preparing for Plymouth. We do not know where faith will lead us, do we?
Let’s talk a little about the faith we just heard about in our passage from the book of Hebrews. Hebrews is a strange little book...its not really a letter to Hebrew people as the name might imply. Scholars actually call it a sermon....and it was most likely not written by Paul the apostle, but by an anonymous apostle, probably for a congregation of Jewish Christians between the years 60 and 95 CE. Late in the first century. These are second generation Christians who have most likely been under persecution. They are tired and thus the continued exhortation throughout the sermon to keep the faith....the faith in Jesus the Christ who has shown the world the powerful workings of God in his life, death and resurrection.
I love the lyricism of the phrase our passage began with. Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. It reminds me that faith is not believing in 10 impossible things before breakfast each morning. It is not a set of intellectual tenants, progressive though they may be…not a code of ethics….not a creed or a statement to which we give intellectual assent as helpful as those may be. Faith is more of a verb than a noun. It is an action. It is a way of living. It is a “living into” as the poet Rainer Maria Rilke suggests in his in oft-quoted letter to a younger poet,
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”[i]
The Greek word for faith, pistis means trust. Pistis is a heart word, not a head word and holds the implication that actions will be taken based on that trust. We really only know trust in acting on it…do we not? In living it. How can we understand trust…until we act on what we trust? We can look at the chair all we want knowing in our heads that it will hold us up when we sit down…but until we do sit down…we do not really trust the chair…do we? And in sitting down we move from intellectual assent that the chair will hold us to experiential assent of our body and our heart in trusting that the chair does indeed hold us up.
To faith is to trust. To faith is to fully accept the gift of God’s unconditional love. Faith is trusting from the deepest recesses of our hearts that in God we will live into the answers to our questions. Faith is the intimate desire for union with the deepest parts of ourselves and others where the Spirit of God dwells. As a Christian, faith is trusting the vision that the way of Jesus, following Jesus as the pioneer and perfecter of “faithing”, is the way to become who we are made to be in God’s image. Following the way of Jesus is the way through the suffering we all encounter in life and the shame that can accompany that suffering. Jesus for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame. He set the example of faith in trusting the God’s unconditional love even in death.
The writer of Hebrews takes great pains to let us know that this way of faith, the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen, this trust in God’s unconditional love has always been God’s way of working in the world…even before the life of Jesus. The writer’s grand litany of ancestors and their faith is even longer than what you actually heard in our text today. Check out the whole of Hebrews chapter 11. It is indeed a great cloud of witnesses! We are the beneficiaries of their faith, their extraordinary trust in God. It is important to the writer of Hebrews that we know that our ancient ancestors, those before Christ, are beneficiaries of our trust in the ways of Jesus. There is a symbiotic relationship as we are all gathered into God! For we are all made in God’s image.
I love the image of being surrounded by this cloud of witnesses...it give me comfort, particularly as I add to it my own family ancestors in faith, grandparents, great grandparents, parents, beloved believers I have known in the churches I have loved and served, loved ones who have gone before me into the unknown life of what is next for us. People I may have only read about or whose writings I have read, but who have inspired me with their faith. Think for a moment of who those witnesses might be for you.
When we trust the great cloud of faith witnesses that have come before us, when we trust our own “faithing” we discover that we are compelled to action. Setting our sites on the way of Jesus we become more of who we are made to be in God’s image and we live more fully into God’s ways of love and justice in the world. When we realize we are held in God’s love, we are compelled to love our neighbor because we know we are all God’s beloveds. We are connected here and now as well as across time. Nothing separates us. We are compelled – each one of us, not just those of us up here in the funny robes– to step into new paths of ministry and service and the new relationships these bring. We hear God’s call to the ministry of our lives. We are strengthened in faith, in trust, to take actions, large or small which can change the very fabric of the cosmos as we work with God.
My friends, I share all this with you today because I have found faith, trust, at work in my life over and over. Looking back over the last nine years since I last preached on this text standing in this pulpit I am keenly aware of how faith has seen me through particularly when I thought I was standing alone in the dark. I know we often wonder these days if we are standing in the dark as a country. And I know that personally we each face the darkness in some way.
Writer and photographer, Teju Cole, teaches us about “qarrtsiluni” — an Inuit word that means ‘sitting together in the dark.’” He says, “Maybe that moment of contemplation, that moment of quiet sorrow, is the anteroom to what the solution, someday, could be.”[ii] The late civil rights activist and Iliff School of Theology professor, Vincent Harding, also understood standing in the dark. He is remembered as saying that too often as folks who want to help others we think our job is to bring people from the dark into the light. What if our job is to stand with them in the dark as we all eventually live into the light? He practiced this in the programs he developed for youth in tough situations. The Spirit may have revelations for those in the dark that they might not ever experience if we try to drag them into the light on our own power, trying to fix everything.[iii] It’s our loving task to first stand with them and listen with them in the dark, in that moment of contemplation and even sorrow. The God who accompanied Jesus even in the dark of the cross and led him through death to resurrection will also accompany us.
Faith is calling us all to go deeper. Go deeper as we step out in faith in a new program year of study and learning together. Are you called to participate or even teach in our Christian formation classes? Go deeper as we step out in faith as an Immigrant Welcoming congregation. Are you called to volunteer and stand with people who are working toward legal documentation? Who are concerned that family members could be deported? Go deeper as we join the “End Gun Violence” ministry team. Go deeper as we surprise ourselves by saying “yes” instead of “no” when asked to help with church hospitality. Go deeper as we pray for our search committee and it’s process. Go deeper as we pray for the discernment of a candidate who may be called to come among us as a new ministerial leader. Go deeper.....you finish the sentence. How are you being compelled to the action of going deeper in faith?
May we all remember… since we are surrounded by [and not separated from] so great a cloud of witnesses, [we can] lay aside every weight and [all that separates us from the love of God]; [we can] run with perseverance the race that is set before us looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith... Let us stand with one another and with our neighbors in faith, in the dark and in the light, knowing we will be sustained by the grace and love of God. May it be so. Amen.
© 2019 The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson, all rights reserved.
[ii] “The Pause”, a weekly email from The On-Being Project”
[iii] From an On Being podcast. A Conversation with Darnell Moore.
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for,
the conviction of things not seen.
Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval.
By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God,
so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out
for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance;
and he set out, not knowing where he was going.
[By faith Sarah conceived Isaac the son of promise…
By faith Moses’ sister hid him in the bulrushes…]
By faith Moses, when he was grown up,
refused to be called a son of Pharaoh's daughter,
choosing rather to share ill-treatment with the people of God….
By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land…
By faith the walls of Jericho fell
after they had been encircled for seven days.
By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish
with those who were disobedient,
because she had received the spies in peace.
And what more should [we] say?
For time would fail to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson,
of Deborah and Jephthah’s daughter,
of David and Jonathan, of Hannah and Samuel and the prophets--
who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice,
obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions,
quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword,
[birthed children of promise], won strength out of weakness,
became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.
Others suffered mocking and flogging,
and even chains and imprisonment.
They wandered in deserts and mountains,
and in caves and holes in the ground.
Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith,
did not receive all the promises of God,
since God was providing something even more full
so that they would not, separate from us, be made perfect.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by [and not separated from]
so great a cloud of witnesses,
let us also lay aside every weight and the sin
that clings so closely [and that separates us from God],
and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us,
looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith,
who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross,
disregarding its shame,
and has taken his seat
at the right hand of the throne of God.
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.