The Rev. Hal Chorpenning
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
In some churches, Reformation Sunday was a time to bash our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters as being superstitious, naïve, corrupt…and the church as a whole, whether Protestant or Catholic or Evangelical or Orthodox has plenty of sin to confess. So often, we are not able to see the log in our own eye when we castigate others, and I’m not going to bash anyone today (especially since I’m going to spend four days in a Jesuit retreat center this week). Instead, I want to talk about parts of our tradition that still are informed by the experience and understandings derived from the Reformation: not just Luther’s break with Rome, not just Calvin and Zwingli’s experience in Switzerland — all of which informed our Evangelical and Reformed tradition in the UCC. And I’m not going to talk too much about the English Reformation that was kickstarted by Henry VIII’s withdrawal from the Roman Church and the formation of the Church of England, though that is where our Congregational forbears have their roots.
Instead, I want to talk about newness and transformation. Many Christian’s read this morning’s passage from Jeremiah and think, “Oh…a new covenant…he must be foretelling Jesus.” Jews obviously don’t read the prophecy that way. Isaiah relays the information that God is about to do a new thing (Is. 43.19), and again Christians may read that as a prophecy of Jesus’ messiahship, but Jews don’t read it that way. Perhaps what these two passage are saying to all of us is that God doesn’t stand still…that God is about finding new ways of being in relationship with God’s people…that there will be new ways that God’s people are faithful.
Reformation is about course-correction. When the armada of the church has steered into a storm, some ship captains recognize that it is time to take a new tack and get into clearer weather. Reformation is not just something that happened on October 31, 1517 when an Augustinian priest nailed 95 theses to a church door in Wittenberg, Germany. It wasn’t the first reformation and it wasn’t the last. In the Congregational tradition, it happened in conjunction with the continental reformation, accelerated with Henry VIII and the birth of the Church of England, and with the idea that the state church, of which kings and queens were and are the head, was still stuck in the storm with the rest of the armada.
Even under the more Protestant reign of Elizabeth I, some thought that the extent of religious reform in England still had not gone far enough. They objected to religious vestments (surplices, robes, and other priestly garments), to making the sign of the cross, and to the observation of saints’ days. Another major objection was the use of prayer books at all and the Book of Common Prayer in particular. Instead, they thought that prayer should come only from the heart, not from the printed page. They wanted to do away with bishops and church courts, replacing them with consistories and synods as a means of church discipline. A recent history of the Plymouth pilgrims says that “around the turn of the 17th century, puritan became a common epithet in England,” [John G. Turner, They Knew They Were Pilgrims (Yale: New Haven, 2020), p. 9.] and the name stuck. Most puritans wanted to stay within the Church of England and to work on reform from within. Other more fervent puritans wanted to “tear down the Church of England and start from scratch” [Turner]. These were the Separatists, some of who eventually made their way to Plymouth, Mass.
As you can imagine, this was not well received by either Church authorities or the monarchy, and while some Separatists had the means and good sense to emigrate to the Netherlands, others stayed in England…some at their peril. Authorities raided Separatist congregations, arresting men and women. On one occasion in London, 21 Separatists were arrested. More than a dozen died in jail, and their two ministers, John Greenwood and Henry Barrow were hanged in 1593. What was so threatening was the idea of Christian liberty in the formation of local congregations that would preserve the freedoms of the laity in the admission of members, election of officers, calling ministers, and the exercise of church discipline.
Those early Separatists, who became Plymouth Pilgrims and later Congregationalists, had ideas of reform that challenged the status quo not just in their ecclesiology (their theology of what the church is and ought to be), but it also rubbed up against royal power. James I said succinctly, “No bishops, no king.”
Since this is the 400th anniversary year of the Pilgrims arrival in Plymouth, Mass., I’ll be saying more about them at the end of November, but I hope that this glimpse at our Separatist forbears in England helps you to understand some of the things about this congregation, and that ways that we keep transforming and reforming. If God is still speaking, we ought to be listening and responding.
During the Second World War, Swiss Reformed Theologian Karl Barth said that the church is always reforming (ecclesia semper reformanda) through self-examination and transformation, and that is certainly true for our UCC today. Can you imagine what the Pilgrims would have thought about being Open & Affirming? Or me wearing an alb and a stole? Or Carla and Jane Anne being ordained ministers? Part of the genius (and I use that in the classical sense, not meaning wicked smart) of the Congregational tradition is that it is willing to morph and transform. Think about it this way: The Puritans of Boston and the Pilgrims of Plymouth became the Congregationalists (now UCC) and the Unitarians, perhaps the two most progressive churches around today. Continual growth and reformation are in our denominational DNA.
I want to go back to Karl Barth for a moment. In the days leading up to World War II, the German church became nazified, wedded to the prevailing politics of hate, and some theologians, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, stood defiantly against the state controlling the church…and he died for that conviction. Others, including Barth, formed something called the Confessing Church and they wrote a statement called the Barmen Declaration, which is an integral part of the denominational heritages of the UCC, the Presbyterian Church USA, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and of course the EKD, the German Protestant Church. Hear these words, and see if they ring true at this moment in history: “We reject the false doctrine that the Church could have permission to hand over … its message and of its order to whatever it itself might wish or to the vicissitudes of the prevailing ideological and political convictions of the day.” I wonder if you can see these words, written in 1934, having any applicability to American Christianity that is so often in its history institutionalized racism and white privilege…that is co-opted by radical individualism and the prosperity gospel…that neglects the words and actions of Jesus in favor of empty slogans like “family values” and “pro-life,” while separating immigrant children from their parents, putting them in cages, and then being unable to reunite them with their families. These are “the vicissitudes of the prevailing ideological and political conventions” of America today. May God give us strength to stand up and make a change.
Last week, our strategic planning team had its first meeting, and you’ll be hearing more about that as we schedule online focus groups. We’ll be looking especially at who is our neighbor and what God is calling us to become as our congregation continues to reform itself and move forward. Even before the pandemic, I asked you to begin praying about and wondering about this question: What is your dream for Plymouth? And I ask you especially to think about that in terms of who Plymouth is called to become ask we ask the question, “Who is our neighbor?”
If you ever wonder why the role of the church in society is important, I hope you will remember our history, and that you will become a part of shaping the history our own time. May God’s law of love and compassion be written on all of our hearts.
© 2020 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.
2 Corinthians 9.6-15
Stewardship Consecration Sunday
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
6What I mean is this: the one who sows a small number of seeds will also reap a small crop, and the one who sows a generous amount of seeds will also reap a generous crop. 7Everyone should give whatever they have decided in their heart. They shouldn't give with hesitation or because of pressure. God loves a cheerful giver. 8God has the power to provide you with more than enough of every kind of grace. That way, you will have everything you need always and in everything to provide more than enough for every kind of good work. 9As it is written,
“[They] scattered everywhere; [they] gave to the needy; [their] righteousness remains forever.” 10The one who supplies seed for planting and bread for eating will supply and multiply your seed and will increase your crop, which is righteousness. 11You will be made rich in every way so that you can be generous in every way. Such generosity produces thanksgiving to God through us. 12Your ministry of this service to God's people isn’t only fully meeting their needs but it is also multiplying in many expressions of thanksgiving to God. 13They will give honor to God for your obedience to your confession of Christ's gospel. They will do this because this service provides evidence of your obedience, and because of your generosity in sharing with them and with everyone. 14They will also pray for you, and they will care deeply for you because of the outstanding grace that God has given to you. 15Thank God for the gifts of God that words cannot describe! 
For the Word of God through scripture, for the Word of God among us, for the Word of God within us….thanks be to God!
And echoing the words of Paul again, Thank God for the gifts of God that words cannot describe! What are the gifts of God in your life that words cannot describe? Think about it. I invite you to pause this video and take the time you need to really think about and/or discuss this question. Take a moment to name a few these gifts with those who are with you or to jot them down.
What did you discover? As I did this exercise alone in my study, I found I first went to the “macro” of family and soul friends and loving community and having an abundance financial resources to generously share with those who have less. Then I went to the “micro” of a warm, comfy, safe bed and blue skies over a sunny, warm beach with gentle ocean waves and tomatoes just off the vine and coffee in the morning. Somewhere in between “macro” and “micro” I found the gift of story with its imagery, metaphor and wisdom, the gift of poetry, of alone time with God, of the sound of laughter with good friends around a dinner table.
I could go on and so could you….the point is to celebrate God’s gifts and receive them whole-heartedly so that we are really nurtured and blessed by them so that we can share God’s gifts with others in need with open hearts and hands. And thus share God’s love revealed in Jesus! Remember, friends, we cannot give away what we do not have. If we do not take time to let God’s gifts and God’s love sink deep into our souls, how can we share them? We can do a lot of good works, but are we sharing from open and abundant hearts and from the abundant heart of God? Just doing good works can lead to soul burn out and scarcity feelings.
The abundant soul place of open-hearted generosity is where Paul is leading the church folks in Corinth as he encourages them to give to the offering being collected for the poor in the Christian community in Jerusalem. Paul knows that there is great financial need in that community, and he is compelled by the love of God he has experienced in Jesus Christ to help. He also knows that the mutuality of giving and receiving will unite the Christian community which is expanding from its Jewish roots in Jerusalem across the empire to include Gentiles in God’s love in Christ. He knows that many – not all, some are poor or are slaves – yet many in the Gentile Christian communities have more to give, they are wealthier. They have not been oppressed and persecuted by the empire as are the Jewish communities. This offering collection is a brilliant opportunity in practical sharing to meet needs and in building bridges across class, ethnic and religious interpretation divides.
So Paul exhorts the church at Corinth, and exhorts us as 21st century church, to greater generosity! He uses with harvest imagery which is familiar to Americans at this time of year… those who sow a small crop reap a small harvest and those who sow a big crop reap a big harvest. Hmm…there is an underlying question: do we want a small or a big harvest? He alludes to and quotes Psalm 112, saying, the faithful followers of God are those who “scattered/shared their resources everywhere; [they] gave to the needy; [their] righteousness or goodness remains forever.” Hmm…. there is an underlying question: do we want to be God’s faithful followers like our ancestors in faith? Paul continues the exhortation by saying in essence, “And don’t worry because the one – and yes, he is referencing God, the Holy One here…the one who supplies the seed for sowing and then the bread for eating will supply you. You will be rich in blessings as are the righteous, the trustworthy followers of God and this will produce in you great thankfulness and generosity. Blessings will overflow!
All this makes for feeling good about harvest and abundance and a donation to the Food Bank, doesn’t it! But hmmm….as I reread the text, I find another underlying question: How much? How much do we give to get this overflowing feeling good of being blessed and being a blessing? Paul writes at the beginning of his exhortation, “Everyone should give whatever they have decided in their heart. They shouldn't give with hesitation or because of pressure. God loves a cheerful giver.” There’s an over-used stewardship quote for you. “God loves a cheerful giver.” Maybe you have seen it embroidered on a pillow or cross-stitched on linen and hanging framed on a wall.
After pondering the Greek word for “cheerful,” hilaros, which also means “joyous” and “prompt to do anything,” … and yes, is the root of “hilarious,” I asked myself what are the implications of being a “cheerful” giver? A giver who is joyous and prompt to do anything needed? Do I, personally, give with any hesitation or because of pressure? Or do I give readily and without guilt or fear? Do I give out of an attitude of abundance or from an outlook of scarcity? Think about that for a few moments. [On screen: 15 seconds of shots of trees/beauty.]
I know I have experienced giving from a scarcity attitude, an attitude of reluctance or hesitation. Have you? In scarcity giving we might say to ourselves, “I have enough in the bank; I have more than enough for my own needs, but I can’t let go of the “what ifs”, the fears of not having enough sometime in the future to give as generously as I really deep down might want to give.” OR we might say to ourselves, “I don’t have a lot to spare and I want to give more. I should give more. I will say I will give more just so I don’t feel guilty and feel like God won’t like me if I give less. I wonder if I can pay the utility bills if I give that much, but I don’t want God to be mad at me.” OR we might say to ourselves, “If I give this much, perhaps I will receive a some external reward or get noticed in the community or get a bigger place in heaven.”
New Testament scholar Ernest Best writes about this passage saying, “Those who give out of self-interest to receive a reward here or hereafter are reluctant givers, for they act under an inner compulsion to seek their own good. There is no genuine joy, only a cool and calculating self-concern. If we give or withhold giving out of fear, if we give because we feel guilty and want to get right with God, if we give out of needing reward we are hesitant givers giving out of pressure and fear, self-concern and scarcity rather than out of joy and abundance.
Now I tell you these things on peril that I will persuade some of you not to give! If you are thinking “Yikes…I don’t know why I give so maybe I just shouldn’t give or pledge at all….” DON’T GO THERE! Take a deep breath!! There is an alternative!
Give from joy… Joy, along with love, casts out fear and guilt and the need to look good in others’ eyes. Give from joy that you have found this church community to be with even in the midst of the social distancing we have at the moment. Give from the joy of watching your children grow up in this community and experience God here in learning and playing and service. Give from the joy of knowing how connected we are to ministries and agencies in northern Colorado that help prevent homelessness or care for the homeless or welcome the immigrant with shelter and clothing or feed the children who could go hungry without the Food Bank of Larimer County. Give from the joy of learning together and praying together in small groups, of knitting prayer shawls together, of singing together even if with the weird parameters we have around singing right now. Give from the joy of all those gifts from God that you thought of that cannot be described with words! Give from the joy of being in the midst of our trying times surrounded by God’s people as we lift one another up with the love that Jesus made manifest in our world! Give from joy even if it is very hard to “feel” joyful emotionally right now. Giving is a way of connecting and I find connecting with others brings me out of my pandemic, election, fire danger, and racism examination anxiety and dismay!
Be a joyful, cheerful giver…and whatever amount you challenge yourself to give, don’t look back! Just give from your open heart. You will be made rich in every way so that you can be generous in every way. Such generosity produces thanksgiving to God through us. Your ministry of this service to God's people isn’t only fully meeting their needs but it is also multiplying in many expressions of thanksgiving to God. In other words, says Paul, your joyful, thankful giving will produce thanksgiving in those who receive from your gifts. They will give thanks to God for you even as you give thanks that you can give to help them. It’s a win-win situation. The more abundance flows the more there will be to do the joyful work of God in this world.
In a moment you will have a chance to say a prayer of consecration over your pledge card or a symbol of your pledge card, if you have already sent it in or pledged online. We joyfully pray over our pledges to recognize and honor that giving is sacred. Giving brings us closer in beloved community and closer to the Holy One. God does have work for us to do, to continue doing, in our tired and troubled world, my friends. We are a community of faithful and hardworking pilgrims on this sacred journey. Let us be joyful, cheerful givers as we walk the road together. Amen.
©The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson, 2020 and beyond. May be reprinted with permission only.
 Bible, Common English. CEB Common English Bible with Apocrypha - eBook [ePub] (Kindle Locations 44634-44637). Common English Bible. Kindle Edition.
 Best, Ernest. Second Corinthians: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (p. 86). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.
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.
Carla preaches on 2 Corinthians 8.
Rev. Carla Cain began her ministry at Plymouth as a Designated Term Associate Minister (two years) in December 2019. Learn more about Carla here.