The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
“The stories we tell [including the stories we tell ourselves] shape how we experience everything.” That’s quite a story in Numbers, isn’t it? The way the writer tells it, the complainers — “riffraff” in the translation I used this morning — have lost sight of the fact that God has given them freedom from slavery in Egypt and has provided food for them, as well as sending Moses as a leader. They are archetypal complainers who see scarcity when they should sense God’s abundance.
In our adult ed. forums and in Jane Anne’s sermon last Sunday, we’ve been looking at an important book by Gareth Higgins called “How Not to Be Afraid: Seven Ways to Live When Everything Seems Terrifying.” I really wish that the Israelites had a copy of this book, because it would have helped them improve their attitude, but it was published about 3,600 years too late. Two questions Higgins asks about every story is 1) Is it true? and 2) Is it useful. If a story is true but not useful, he invites us to tell ourselves a different story — or to tell the same story differently — if we want to shift our outlook. Psychologists, who would also have been helpful to the Israelites, call this reframing.
So, you’ve heard the story as it’s written, and perhaps it is an admonition to us to stop whining and be appreciative for what God has provided. The writer’s message is pretty clear: quit your kvetching and stop demanding perfection! But what if the Israelites had told themselves the story differently? What if they had the emotional intelligence and insight to tell the story this way:
Even though there was a strong craving for meat among the Israelites, they savored the freedom and deliverance God had provided. Even when they remembered the fish, cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic they had eaten while in bondage in Egypt, they were sustained by the manna that God had provided to keep them alive, and they were grateful.
The manna was like coriander seed and its color was like a beautiful resin. The people would roam around and collect it and grind it and then boil it in pots and make it into cakes. It tasted like cakes baked in olive oil.
And sometimes, when it was mixed with just the right amount of water, it tasted kind of like chicken. It sustained people in the wilderness for 40 years and cost them nothing.
Milk and honey awaited them, they knew, and beside that, they had something that tasted sweeter than the produce of goats and bees: God had provided them with freedom from bondage.
What would have happened to the Israelites if they had told the story differently? How might their experience have been transformed? How might Moses’s leadership have changed? Do you ever have stories in your own life that need to be told in a different — a more helpful — way? This is not about being a Pollyanna, but rather about surviving your own fears and insecurities and turning them into gifts rather than curses. Sometimes we simply aren’t ready to tell the story differently because we have become attached to the old story, even if it’s an unhealthy narrative. What do I mean by that? It’s in the text this morning: “We remember the fish we ate in Egypt for free!” Yes, dear Israelites, but do you not also remember the existential oppression of being enslaved for generations? …building pyramids in the hot sun for pharaohs who erroneously considered themselves living gods? Is your whining story helpful?
Are there some less-healthy narratives that you keep telling yourself, simply because you’ve become used to the old, unhelpful story? Maybe the story you tell yourself — or even recount to others — has lost its usefulness. I’ve fallen into that trap and did so again last week.
As I was preparing for my trip to UCLA for a very fancy scan, I reframed the language of diagnosing my cancer. Initially, I was saying, “I have to fly out to LA and have a huge amount of radiation in this scan, and my insurance probably won’t even pay for it.” That is true, but it is not a life-giving story. So, instead of telling myself that I HAVE to get a PSMA PET CT scan, I started retelling the story with a twist: I GET to have a PSMA PET CT scan. What’s more, I have an oncologist who is so far ahead of the game that he sends his patients our to LA instead of waiting for Anschutz to start doing the scan sometime in the future. And even further, I have enough money to pay for the scan and the travel expenses, and I get to stay with my sister and brother-in-law, who are really supportive.
So far, so good. Even when I was anxious about the scan, I kept telling myself the new, better story. But early last week, I started feeling anxious about hearing the results, which could have been not-very-good news. And on Tuesday, I heard some pretty good news from my oncologist: “Hal, there are three lymph nodes in your pelvic region that are cancerous, and there is no evidence of metastasis in your bones or organs. And it’s very treatable.” Phew! Grateful for that! And then Jane Anne and I met with him on Wednesday to talk about the treatment plan. He described two different approaches, and together we opted for the more aggressive approach that has about a 50-percent cure rate. I was fine when he said six weeks of radiation treatments five days a week — it’s a 15-minute drive from my house, which makes me really grateful to live in Fort Collins! My attitude took a nosedive when he said that it would also involve between six and eighteen months of androgen-deprivation therapy, which I did for six months last time, and it made me feel miserable: hot flashes, mood swings, hair loss, muscle loss, weight gain, and other unmentionable side effects. Here is the story I started telling myself even before I left the oncologist’s office: I’m going to feel like crap again, and maybe for an even longer time. I’m going to gain back the 35 pounds I’ve lost. I’m not going to be able to deal with the hormone-driven emotional roller coaster on top of all the stress of doing pandemic ministry at Plymouth. I’m going to be too tired to do what I need to do.” Now, I ask you: do you think that’s a helpful story to tell oneself? I feel sorry for Jane Anne, who got to hear me whine like the Israelites! And it took a good night’s sleep for that story to get stale and for me to tell it differently.
Thursday morning, I read Richard Rohr’s daily email entitled, “It’s All a Gift.” He contrasts our meritocracy with what he calls “the gift economy” that God has set up. “If we call ourselves Christians, we have to deal with the actual Gospel. The only way we can make this turnaround and understand [the gift economy] is if we’ve had at least one experience of being given to without earning.” What have you received without earning it? Most of us “earn” a salary, we “earned” whatever education we got, we “earned” that vacation we took. What have YOU received without earning it? Think about that for a moment. Who gave you life? Biologically, your parents did, but who provided the gift of life itself? Did you earn that? Does God require a quid pro quo for the gift of life, of enough food, of enough education, of enough faith, of enough health? Rohr concludes, “We don’t ‘deserve’ anything!” It’s all a gift. And that changes the way we tell the story.
If we see it all as a gift, the Israelites tell the story of God’s abundance in freeing them and feeding them in the wilderness for 40 years and for providing a leader. If we see it all as a gift, I get to tell the story about how lucky I am: I GET to have another shot at my cancer being cured, I GET to have excellent healthcare and treatment, I. GET to have a faith that sustains me spiritually…. I even GET to learn to tell a better story to myself and to you about something as difficult as cancer.
What stories are you telling yourself? Are they true? Are they useful? Stories about the pandemic? About your responses to it? About where God is in your life? About things that scare the hell out of you? Do you need to tell a different, a more helpful story? How would God tell YOUR story? Perhaps you should tell it that way, too. The stories we tell ourselves shape how we see everything.
© 2021 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
 Gareth Higgins, How Not to Be Afraid, (Minneapolis: Broadleaf, 2021), p.29.
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.
1 Corinthians 8:1b-3
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
Fort Collins, CO
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
Today our scripture text is quite short. It comes from Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth. He is responding some tangible issues in the young church that is made up of Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor. It seems there is a debate over whether it spiritually harmful to eat meat that has been sacrificed to idols when you visit someone’s house. Paul speaks specifically to the wealthier Gentile Corinthians who feel they have enough excellent spiritual knowledge be able to eat this meat when hosted by pagan friends and not fall back into pagan practices. He bypasses the whole tussle saying, “Your knowledge that this meat won’t hurt you because the idols are false gods that do not exist and you know the One God revealed in Jesus the Christ, is correct and not the point. The point is, will your practices influence those who have been Christ followers a shorter time than you and lead them back into pagan practices? How will your “superior” knowledge affect and shape the community?” Paul says to them that the beloved community, its unity and spiritual nourishment is more important that any special spiritual knowledge that any of us might have. We are all called to love the One God, the real God revealed in the love of Jesus the Christ. Hear this brief text with me.
1 Corinthians 8:1b-3:
We know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge makes people arrogant, but love builds people up. If anyone thinks they know something, they don't yet know as much as they should know. But if someone loves God, then they are known by God. 
We know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge makes people arrogant, but love builds people up. If anyone thinks they know something, they don't yet know as much as they should know. But if someone loves God, then they are known by God.
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!
Do you love God? What does it mean to love God? Do you believe/understand you are known by God? I wrestle with these questions. I share some of my wrestling with you today.
The piece of Gareth Higgin’s book, How Not To Be Afraid: Seven Ways to Live When Everything Seems Terrifying, that stunned me, took my breath away, comes from the chapter in the book titled, “The Fear Of Being Alone.” After telling a childhood story of being lost on a bike ride with his father, not knowing which turn to make to find his dad and feeling quite alone, Gareth writes, “ … true knowing is a two-way street between us and the divine (or higher power, or universe, or God, or whatever may be the best synonym for Love.) The way to overcome the fear of being alone is to find friendship with God and with yourself. Knowing isn’t as valuable or life-giving as being known. Being known is not something to be achieved but experienced.” 
Is Gareth echoing Paul here, knowingly or unknowingly? Paul wrote, “If anyone thinks they know something, they don't yet know as much as they should know. But if someone loves God, then they are known by God.” Knowing is something we seek to achieve. And well we should in many circumstances. Being known, however, … Loving … that is to be experienced, isn’t it?
I like to know things! I even strive to know things. I have strived to be well-educated, to know stuff! I strive to create the best sermons and programming possible to help individuals and church communities on their journeys to being God’s kin-dom on earth, strived to know God so I can share God! However, I had to ask myself as I read Gareth’s words, have I ever known that I am “known,” particularly “known” by God.
Are some of you – out there in the pews, watching at home– “strivers”? Do you strive to know things in life, to know God? Perhaps, you are better than I am at being with God, accepting that God knows and love you? Accepting that you love God?
There is a something about these questions that I am grasping to understand. Like I want to understand/experience Gareth’s words about being known is an experience far greater than knowing, I want to understand/experience Paul’s word’s “if someone loves God, then they are known by God.” These words speak to me in such deep place in me that I can barely articulate what I sense or feel. I thought I desired to know God. It seems I desire to be known by God.
This desire brings me to the question, which may seem odd given the fact I have been in the Christian church all my life, baptized at 10, working in full-time ministry for over 20 years, if I desire to be known by God, then how do I love God? I love my family, I love my friends, I love my husband, I love my dog, I love my church. I know the choices I make because of all this loving. I can feel these loves tangibly inside of me. I love these things without a lot of striving because they are tangible in my life and because they love me back. But how do I love the Mystery that is God? How do I know that I am loving God? How do I do it right so God can know me?
And see - I am back to the striving, striving for knowledge, for achievement, for excellence. I can think and ponder my way into and around this desire to be known by God, to dwell in God’s love, until I have worn myself out. And worn you out as well. What else did Paul say? “If anyone thinks they know something, they don't yet know as much as they should know. [That’s me.] But if someone loves God, then they are known by God.”
Being known by God is about loving, Being in the loves of this world that are real and tangible. Being in the Love that is God that may not be as tangible at first. Paul knew that the wisdom of the Hebrew scriptures commanded us to love God, neighbor and self. And I include creation, all its animate and inanimate beings, as well as humanity, as our neighbors. God, neighbors, self – these three things are the very substance of life and when we intentionally dwell in loving with them we dwell in Love, in the Divine, the Holy, and are somehow, beyond our knowing, we are known.
To be known by God, is a mystery, is a given, is not something we can strive to achieve. It is a relationship experience. It is dwelling in Love. Gareth reminds us that being known by God is not knowledge, but experience. He writes, “And it can be experienced right now through a practice that is often called prayer but is accessible to everyone, no matter your tradition or belief. … Any practice that unfolds love to you can be considered prayer.” He continues, “Prayer is not a chore. Prayer is one way to community. Prayer literally remembers us into the experience of not being alone.”  If we are known by God, we are not alone.
I recently was given a poem by a friend in a contemplative writing group that I am in by a contemporary poet that I did not know, Alfred K. Lamotte. Like Paul’s words, like Gareth’s words, this poet’s words struck me to the core. “Fred”, as his publisher referred to him when I wrote for permission to share this poem, titled his poem, “Gospel.” Remember that “gospel” literally means in New Testament Greek, “good news.” In the poem, which I will conclude with today, I think the poet offers an experience of prayer and of being known. There is one line that gave me pause, “There is no bad news.” How can he write this? I have definitely received news that seemed bad, very bad, at times. I know you have as well. Keep listening, though, to the end of the poem. The next few lines will juxtapose that line with meaning in the surrender of prayer and being known by God. I invite us all into this place of surrender in relationship and being known, even if just for a moment, this day.
"Gospel" by Alfred K. Lamotte
Nothing is wrong.
You have never not been free.
This is the good news.
Every photon of your flesh
Is the boundless sky.
This is the good news.
You lost yourself
In the shadow of beauty
So that beauty might
Find you again
There is no bad news.
From a heartbroken place
Where you’ve breathed out
Everything you carried.
The next breath
Is God’s love. 
So it is. Amen.
©The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, 2021 and beyond. May only be reprinted with permission.
1. Bible, Common English. CEB Common English Bible with Apocrypha - eBook [ePub] (Kindle Locations 44157-44159). Common English Bible. Kindle Edition.
2. Gareth Higgins, How Not To Be Afraid, Seven Ways to Live When Everything Seems Terrifying, (Broadleaf Books, Minneapolis, MN: 2021, 88-89.)
3. Ibid, 89.
4. Alfred K. Lamotte, “Gospel,” Savor Eternity One Moment at a Time,(Saint Julian’s Press, Houston, TX: 2016, 13.)
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.
Plymouth Congregational Church
Fort Collins, Colorado
Lection: Psalm 46, "Easter, 1916" (Yeats)
Trying to make sense of something that is senseless is not easy. You already know that I think.
When someone we love dies, when our lives are turned upside down by something the doctor tells us, when the phone rings in the middle of the night or when a relationship breaks apart, we are left stunned and at a loss for words.
That’s how I feel when I think about 9/11 and about much that has happened in our world and in this country since 9/11. It’s been twenty years, but for me it seems like yesterday.
As a few of you know, Charnley and I were living in New York City on September 11, 2001. She was working for Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Research Hospital in Human Resources, and I was on the staff of Marble Collegiate Church on 5th Avenue. That day was election day and we voted at P.S. 116 on our block and left one another on the corner of 33rd Street and 3rd Avenue at around 9:00 a.m. She headed north to her office, and I headed cross town to the church at 5th Avenue and 29th Street. What neither of us knew at that moment, was that an airplane had struck the North Tower of the World Trade Center at 8:46 a.m. and that another plane had flown into the South Tower at 9:03 a.m. When I reached Park Avenue South and 32nd Street, people were looking downtown at a large cloud of smoke. A man with a cell phone said that he thought a small sightseeing plane had hit the World Trade Center.
By the time I reached my office, traffic was beginning to stop, and the street was full of people pointing and crying. We hooked up a T.V in the lobby of our office building and for a time just wandered around in shock. I walked over to Sixth Avenue where you could look downtown directly at the Twin Towers. I was there when the South Tower fell, but it was hard to tell what was happening because of the smoke. When word rippled through the crowd, people reacted with shock and anger and tears. People hugged total strangers.
Meanwhile, Charnley’s office closed, and she went back to our apartment with a consultant who had just arrived in the city by train and a young girl from her staff who lived outside of the city and was terrified and had nowhere to go. They turned on the T.V. and heard that blood was needed at the hospital two blocks from our apartment, so they headed over there to give blood. After a short time standing on line, they were turned away because the hospital had figured out by that point that they were probably not going to need blood. Outside of the Emergency room on the street, dozens of doctors and nurses stood waiting with wheelchairs and stretchers for the injured who never came. One of the saddest truths of that day was that almost no one made it to the hospital. People either escaped or they died.
By the time the north tower collapsed, we had organized ourselves at the church to do what we could. We began to list the people we knew might be working in the Twin Towers. We opened the Fifth Avenue doors, we set up land-line phones that people could use, we put together a prayer service for noon and set up a table to give people water. We put on our robes and stood outside in the crowd milling around on the street just talking to people.
The next eight hours are a blur and the next few days are a bigger blur, but by noon, people covered with dust from the building’s collapse began straggling up Fifth Avenue walking home. Many of them stopped to talk. Many of them went into the church just to rest and pray or use the facilities or to make a phone call since nobody’s cell phone was working at that point. And that’s what we did for the next several days, we listened, we tried to give comfort, we worshipped—we rang the bell and the sanctuary would fill beyond capacity with people anxious to sing together and pray, and we stood on the street just talking to people who needed to talk.
Looking back from the perspective of twenty years I want to share a few observations. In the limited time I have, I can only scratch the surface, so these remarks come with an invitation for further conversation with any of you.
Observation one: the human spirit is amazing and when evil runs into the human spirit—which is exactly what the people who hijacked those planes were up to, the human spirit may flounder for a time, but the human spirit comes through because the human spirit is really one with the Divine Spirit. That’s how I understand the fire fighters and other first responders who ran into those buildings. That’s how I make some sense of what happened that day and that’s how I understand and deeply appreciate the scientists and the first responders and all the medical people attempting to help during this time of Pandemic. When we trust one another and the facts, we are all capable of a lot more than we think.
Observation two, when something bad happens, the worst part is the fear. I spent the first few hours after the attack working in the shadow of the Empire State Building. I found myself glancing up afraid that I might catch sight of another plane. Rumors abounded. A mosque in our neighborhood was excavating a basement, were they really planting bombs? Don’t ride the subways, there is an attack scheduled for Friday on the trains. Some of the same conspiracy theories born then are still festering in the dank ignorance that empowers the science deniers and fear mongers today.
One of the biggest challenges in this life is to live by faith and not by fear and that is a decision we are called to make every single day of our lives. Fear is real and worry is fear’s best friend but living by fear is not living—living by faith is living. So many angel messengers appeared that day and in the following days with that message, that I became convinced that the Holy One was speaking.
Observation three, it's OK to be angry—in fact when something like that happens, it is downright healthy to react with anger. There was plenty of anger, but since anger is what flew those planes and killed all those people to begin with, the anger we were feeling in response to the attack needed to become a pathway to healing and not an excuse to join the people who live their lives angry. Whole groups of people in this nation are living that way and that is tragic. Anger is either a dead end with the emphasis on the word ‘dead’ or a passage to the positive. Dare I suggest that being angry enough to do something loving is the way of Jesus?
Observation four, and this relates to the one about anger: there is no future in revenge. I suggested a few days after 9/11 that we offer to send every young person in the Arab world to Harvard rather than seek revenge for what happened. That sounds crazy I know, but it’s hard for me to see what we as a nation achieved with our twenty-year wars that thank God might be ending. One recent study (Watson Institute, Brown University) revealed that these wars have cost $6.4 trillion dollars—a number beyond comprehension, but in simple terms around $20,000 for each person in this nation. And that is not counting the 800,000 human beings lost in the process, including so many of our beloved young people whose service and sacrifice is beyond measuring. I am not a foreign policy expert, and I am not a politician, but I do follow the Jesus who talked about the futility of revenge.
Observation five, bad religion leads to bad politics and crazies are crazies no matter which religion they practice. When human beings confuse their ideas about God and what they believe God might want them to do, with God or when human beings justify what they want to do anyway by appealing to their understanding of religion, you can almost guarantee that the religion being practiced has very little to do with the transcendent reality that is glimpsed from time to time on the far side of our human experience.
God is not what is in the book whether that book is the Bible or the Quran or Vedic scripture. God is love and where love abides God resides, God is forgiveness, and when we forgive and find a way to give, God is hovering near. God is present when humans embrace one another across borders and find ways to break down walls that separate or differentiate based on race, ethnicity, or orientation.
If pride or patriotism drives love out the door and creates enemies to enhance identity or to preserve privilege, then the amazing ability of the human ego to justify its behavior takes over and people are bound to get hurt and God will once again be found weeping on a pile of smoking rubble left behind by the next act of human idiocy or idolatry.
Observation six, when you find yourself caught up in something overwhelming, do something human and whatever you do it will multiply. Two stories. Shortly after we got started talking to people on the street, a member of the congregation in her late eighties showed up to help. She just showed up. The water table was her idea. We did that every year in June for the Fifth Avenue Pride Parade, because that’s what Jesus said to do with thirsty people. And so following her lead we began offering ice water on that hot day and pretty soon, people trudging up Fifth Avenue covered with ash from the falling buildings and many people who needed to be with others joined in to help. Total strangers were helping her hand out water. It wasn’t heroic, it was tiny compared to what others were doing at Ground Zero, but it was the love of Jesus. That’s one story and here’s another.
Most of us on the staff of the church and many of our members were customers at a tiny drug store on 29th Street just off Madison. The pharmacist was a devout Moslem. At our first staff meeting after the disaster, one of the administrative assistants brought up our pharmacist and ask for prayers of understanding in our community. She then decided that it would be her mission to stop by his store everyday to assure him of her friendship. Many of us joined her. It wasn’t dramatic, it wasn’t heroic—it was just the love of Jesus.
In the next few days, leading up to the 20th Anniversary of 9/11 on Saturday, I hope you will take some time to remember the people who lost their lives on 9/11 and the people who have died since because of the hate that burned on that day. May our mourning and our remembering bring meaning to our living and to our loving. That’s the way of Jesus. Amen.