Last Sunday of Church Year
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
[Thanksgiving from returning exiles]
1 When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dream.
2 Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then it was said among the nations,
"The LORD has done great things for them."
3 The LORD has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.
4 Restore our fortunes, O LORD,
like the watercourses in the Negeb.
5 May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.
6 Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.
We come together this Sunday at the turning of the year. Today is the last Sunday of the church year. Next week we start Advent, the beginning of the church year. A time of anticipation and waiting in expectation for the feast of Christmas...when God restored the fortunes of humanity by sending God’s own son, Jesus, to live among us as a sign of God’s love. This week is like New Year’s Eve in the liturgical calendar. An appropriate time for looking back and looking forward, for reflecting on the turning spiral of time as we end fall and head toward the winter solstice. The days are shorter, the nights are longer, the trees have shed their leaves, we have put our gardens to bed for the coming months. This week we are in a liminal, in between, fallow time. A turning time.
I have learned to think of the turning of the seasons, the turning of the year more like a spiral than a circle. I know that many ancient cultures, including the ancient Hebrews who gave us this beautiful psalm, thought of time as a circle. There was no end to time. Everything was on the continuum of life’s circle and it was all encompassed by God. What was most important was the quality of life that was happening, the essence, rather than the quantity in straight line chronology.
For me this ancient circle is a little more three dimensional as a spiral. Every time we come round the circle of a day, a week, a month, a year there is growth and learning. We hopefully don’t just repeat the circle again in the very same way.
Psalm 126 teaches us that our relationship with the Holy is a circular or in my view a spiral movement. Traditionally known as a “Song of Ascent” scholars believe song is part of a collection of psalms sung by pilgrims going up to a sacred festival at the temple in Jerusalem. In the first turn of the psalm the pilgrims sing their remembrance of the past work of God in their lives, the ways God has protected and restored them after terrible trials in exile. Taught by the prophets that exile was a consequence of turning away in faithlessness from God’s ways of living, they discovered that even in exile God did not desert them. God kept them, never left them and then restored their fortunes in bringing them home. Literally and in their relationship to God. They rebuilt their homes still weeping for the destruction they had experienced. God sustained them in the rebuilding even as God restored their intimate relationship with God as God’s people. Their sweat and tears yielded to shouts of joy as they entered new homes and a rebuilt temple.
The pilgrims sing this remembrance, this story joyfully as they travel perhaps to the Passover festival in Jerusalem. God did this for them in the past. They know the character of God through God’s actions. Therefore, God can be trusted to do this in the present and in the future. As they moved through the spiral of history and their own life experiences interacting with the Divine their understanding of God grew, their faith in God deepened. What they trusted experientially in the past can inform the present and future.
So “the Lord will again restore our fortunes, like the watercourses in the Negeb”.....the streams that come each year with the rains to water the crops. They may sow in tears....plant seeds in complete and terrifying unknowing of whether the crops will prosper this year.....yet they have hope, they put their trust in God who will bring the joy of harvest. They will come home with sheaves and shouts of joy.
God is with them even as life ebbs and flows in its circular, spiral movement....through pain and suffering....through joy and plenty. These experiences come around again and again. In each turning learning and growth happen that can be trusted in exile and tragedy and in harvest and rejoicing....God has worked in the past....God will work in the future...we will be restored....we are being restored. In Psalm 126, the people of God are literally praying and singing their life experiences.
So here we are at the winding down part of the spiral of our year, this particular liturgical year which began with Advent 2017 and moved into the new calendar year of 2018. And now we prepare for a new Advent that will move us to Christmas and then into 2019. Even in our sunny Colorado climate, this time of year can be a challenging when the dark closes in tighter and tighter and the weather grows cold. We know we are all challenged these days by the state of our country and the state of the world. Many of us feel in exile politically. There is still so much violence and hate, intolerance, mistrust, greed. Is our political system in Washington in exile from the ways of justice? How can God be in the midst of this? Where do we find the Holy? The stock market is turning in concerning ways...is this the beginning of economic instability? Where is God in the midst of this?
Some of us anticipate the holidays with grief and trepidation....there will be an empty place at the holiday table that was filled last year. Or maybe the loved ones can’t get home this year or you can’t get home. Where is the Holy One in the midst of the exile of grief? Is there a new and worrying diagnosis that threatens our emotional equilibrium as well as our health or the health of a loved one? There are “regular” stresses of job and school – and in gearing up for the holidays - that tug at our souls and drain our faith. Do we dare to dream the dreams those ancient Hebrew people who were restored to home from captivity and exile in a foreign land? At this turning time of year do we dare to sing and pray our relationship with God?
Psalm 126 invites us into prayer no matter where we are at this turn of the year, whether we feel in exile or in return to God’s presence of renewal or somewhere in between. There is a simple prayer process I have been re-visiting in my life. It is the process of praying our life experiences. Not sending God a barrage of words about our experiences and how they do or do not measure up to our expectations. (I am very good at that process.) But actually praying our experiences. So I invite you to join me today.
© The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson, 2018. May be reprinted with permission only.
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.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
Imagine the devastation after the horrific fires in California in recent weeks that have consumed vast swathes of land, destroyed homes, and claimed lives. And then imagine that such devastation does not last forever…that the earth recovers its fertility after fire, that new lives emerge and dwell in the land. The prophet Joel is speaking a profound word of comfort to the people of ancient Israel –- and to us –- following the ravages of fires, plagues of locusts, and times of famine. After lament and prayers from their priests, the people must have been relieved to hear this prophecy of restoration and abundance.
I find it amazing that God’s planet provides such abundance and resilience. And if we want that to continue, we have to be better stewards of creation, including some fast, dramatic action on the human causes of climate change. And we need to tend to the issues of overpopulation. But that is a sermon for another day. Today, we hear Joel prophesy abundance.
Virtually all of us here have been the recipients of abundance. And some of us have also known what it is like to go to bed hungry because our families have not had enough food to put on the table. Thankfully, that isn’t the case for most of us today.
The abundance of food is really clear in Joel’s prophecy: “Do not fear, O soil; be glad and rejoice, for the LORD has done great things! Do not fear, you animals of the field, for the pastures of the wilderness are green; the tree bears its fruit, the fig tree and vine give their full yield…The threshing floors shall be full of grain, the vats shall overflow with wine and oil.”
Earlier this week I read a story in the Washington Post that might help you sense God’s abundance in your life –- I know, not what you typically read about in the Washington Post. The article by a personal finance columnist, said the if you have $4,210 in net assets –- your home, car, cash, retirement and so on minus your indebtedness –- you are in the wealthiest 50 percent of the world’s population. To be in the top 10 percent, you’d need net assets of $93,170. And to be at the pinnacle of the world wealthiest people, it would mean that you have net assets of $871,320. I never really thought that we had one-percenters in this congregation, but if you’ve looked at real estate values recently we just might!
So, I wonder if you are someone in the upper half of the world’s wealthiest people…if you are the recipients of God’s plenty…do you feel a sense of abundance? On this week when most of us will find ourselves at a table with more than enough food –- even though it’s a bad week for turkeys –- do you feel a sense of abundance in your life?
As Americans, we get bombarded by messages that tell us we are inadequate and come up short and the answer to solving those maladies is the most effective antiperspirant, the best toothpaste, or the latest pharmaceutical. ("Ask your doctor if Lunesta is right for you. Possible side effects include…" -- you know the spiel.) No one selling goods or services tells you that you are an amazing person who is loved deeply by God, who has graced a planet with enough for everyone, if only we knew how to share better.
Like most of you, I suspect, there are moments when I spend more time being stressed out by finances –- saving for college, paying child support, paying the mortgage, paying my pledge, medical co-pays –- than there are moments when I pause and say, “I am grateful for all the abundance in my life…faith, family, friends, community, and never wondering if I can buy groceries.”
Think for a moment about the abundance in your life. Think about the abundance of relationships, the abundance of shelter, the abundance of food, the abundance of church community, the abundance of faith, the abundance of Creation, the abundance of love. Take a few deep breaths and be really intentional about focusing on that. Wow.
What will you do with all the abundance God has entrusted to you?
I think most of us know that we should attend to the basic needs we have: food, shelter, healthcare, and legal obligations. And to other important needs like education. And that abundance gives us amazing privileges in terms of what we do with it, because most of us have something beyond basic needs.
In religions across the world and through the ages, harvest time is associated with sharing abundance. In ancient Greece the aparche offering comprised first fruits, the very first produce collected, which were offered as a sacrifice at temples. That was priority number one, because that offering meant a good future harvest. In ancient Israel certain produce was specified as a first fruits offering – grapes (in the form of wine), figs, pomegranates, dates, wheat, barley and olives (in the form of oil). These were brought to the Temple as part of the Bikkurim, the ceremony of the first fruits. Harvest Home (which interestingly occurs in the first hymn we sang this morning) is an English pagan festival at the end of the harvest. The last sheaf of grain from the field is shaped into a doll representing a crone or cailliach, which is soaked in water to ensure good rainfall, then it is buried in the fields when planning next year’s grain. Tsukimi in Japan is a harvest celebration at which they also make big scarecrow-like dolls with grass and make offerings of rice dumplings, taro, edamame, chestnuts, and sake to ensure a good harvest next year.
And of course, we have Thanksgiving. It has been almost 400 years since that first Thanksgiving in Plymouth, Massachusetts…and we have a big anniversary in two years! Our Puritan forbears did not observe religious festivals that weren’t mentioned in the Bible. So, Christmas and Easter were out, and days of fasting and prayer – as well as Thanksgiving – were in. Thanksgiving was a religious observance of gratitude for God’s abundance…and even so, the Puritans acknowledged God’s abundance with a feast.
So, how will you acknowledge the abundance around you…whether it seems like a lot of abundance or a little? How will you say thanks? How will you make a difference? How will you work at redistributing some of the wealth God has entrusted to you?
I love our Alternative Giving Fair, because whether you are buying a water buffalo through Heifer Project or aiding the Lango Kindergarten that Nancy and Bob Sturtevant started in Ethiopia or buying a blanket through Church World Service, you are using your abundance to make a difference in someone’s life. That is perhaps the main reason I’ve always found this special type of gift-giving to be a joy. (And I get to tick off the boxes for presents before Thanksgiving has even happened…and I don’t have to go to the mall or to Amazon.)
One of the things my mom used to do was to write a special prayer for Thanksgiving, and it happened most years, until one of them stuck. It became the all-purpose pre-meal blessing in our family, and we still say it every now and again, and I leave it with you this morning with the hope and the expectation of abundance in your life: “For love and friends, for home and health, we are most thankful for this wealth. Teach us, Lord, to be kind to all, and to appreciate thy bountiful blessings.” 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.
 “How to Feel Wealthier than a Millionaire,” by Michelle Singetary, Washington Post, November 13, 2108
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.
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph
Plymouth Congregational Church UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
Mark 12: 38-44
How many of you have ever read the book or seen one of the film versions of The Stepford Wives? Looks like most of you, but if not—it is about a town where many of the residents are being turned into or replaced by robots. It is a place where nothing is as it seems as computers replace humans and people keep everything they are feeling under wraps. Stepford was supposedly in Connecticut, but I think Fort Collins can be called the Stepford of the Rockies. Fort Collins is “Progressive Stepford” … well expect with more Prius drivers and dispensaries. In my pastoral care conversations, I am noticing a trend: nobody can keep-up anymore and few recognize reasons for this. Under the surface, difficult lives are lived. Our worth as people is at risk, even in Fort Collins, in the age of computer take-over for efficiency sake.
For this reason, today, I want to talk about the worth we place on ourselves and our giftedness and usefulness (the mites we offer the treasury of life). Our assessment worthiness for self-care, for time, for love, for all sorts of things is at risk in a computer-driven-age. We need this story of the widow’s offering more than ever before! This story is fundamentally about how the widow found worth in the gift she offered even if others wouldn’t have found any usefulness in it. Jesus flips valuation on its head. Life in Jesus’ assessment is about the intention or the purpose with which we do things rather than quantity, the numbers, the data. An obsession with quantifiable data and efficiency as the measure for good itself, for success, of worth… and even for personhood is what we are talking about today. In Christianity, according to Jesus, the true driver of purpose is intention rather than measurable, data-driven best practices.
Will you pray with me? May the words of my mouth and the worthy mites of all of our hearts be hope-filled and empowering in your sight, our God, our Creator, and our Worth-Maker. Amen.
He sat down across from the treasury, and watched the crowd…Truly I tell you, this poor widow has DONE MORE than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in (emptied, offered, given…) everything she had, all she had to live on.
Jesus sits down in front of the temple and makes a paradoxical statement. He says that less is not only more, but because of the intention with which less is offered, it is worth everything. Where do we see this at work in our world still?
I am a Habitat for Humanity Christian. This isn’t because I am on the board. Being on the board of Habitat certainly doesn’t make Habitat better (I am a very disruptive board member), but it has made me a better or even a real minister. This is because it is at Habitat that I learned the Theology of the Hammer pioneered by Millard Fuller and carried by Jimmy Carter. This is the idea that everyone, every effort, every volunteer second, every penny, every distant prayer that touches a Habitat for Humanity home is as valuable and meaningful as a large tract of land given by a wealthy family. The Theology of the Hammer (an applied theology of the Widow’s Mite) has taught me that my fancy robes and scarfs as a Mainline Protestant Minister ordained in one of the historic denominations isn’t any better or more important than my colleagues from evangelical house churches or people with no religious affiliation.
We all have something to offer. We all have mites to share that might could change the universe for good. We just have to believe and recognize The Worth of all Persons. All people are of Sacred Worth. This paradoxical idea is at the core of what makes Christianity good—if we forget this lesson, then there is no good worth saving.
We live in a time when the world around us wants you, me, all of us to live and to be as productive as a computer—to never make a mistake, never ere, always produce a greater data-driven outcome, live in perfection. Data is great and useful when coupled with, always first, a value for worth of intention and personhood. The world, work, family, even your own expectations of your capacity indicate that you are meant to be a computer and only generate quantifiable outcomes. This is Capitalism of the Soul by an impossible economy of selfhood—or Cannibalism of the Soul by our own impossible expectations. Our job as the church is to call BULL SHIT just like Jesus does this morning. What constitutes a person of worth in our economy of personhood is experiencing inflation… the mites, the worth we offer is valued less and less. It is our job to return over and over again to this story: Jesus claims that her effort is of worth and worthy. We have to be the Federal Reserve for the Economy of Jesus.
This story is often called “The Widow’s Mite.” A mite (M.I.T.E.) was the currency and quantity the widow is described as giving—it would be less than a Penny in today’s currency (about 1/3 of a penny). In Jesus’ time, however, it was about 1/64th of what an average laborer would make in a day. Worthless—you couldn’t buy anything with this. This story of the Widow’s mite and the significance Jesus applies to it has made to be about money for too long. Really has little to do with money—for her gift would have been deemed not even worth the effort of the walk to the Temple. It has come to mean that we are supposed to give financially to the Church as much as we possibly can and know that God doesn’t judge us and finds abundance in it anyway. That is all good and well, but there is more we can say. Really—this is about God finding deep worth in something that would have been viewed as worthless.
The Widow’s Mite is about our human search for worth, for valuation of ourselves, for meaning; especially in a society that seeks to devalue us and makes us question our worth in a computer age.
I mean, can you keep up, really? [Silence… looking for a raising of hands and seeing none…]
The amount of money she gives was literally worthless to the society she lived in. It wasn’t even worth her effort to walk to the Temple to offer it. Even her effort to show-up to the booth and deposit her money would have been called a hopeless, useless, unproductive, meaningless effort. Sounds a lot like how people often think of voting—how can my vote matter?
We live in a time when the dehumanization, devaluation of others and even how we view ourselves, our efforts, our votes, our thoughts, our time, our personhood, our worthiness to take space in this world… is under attack from the highest levels. We live in a time, when we need to hear the deeper meaning of this text beyond the Stewardship applicability: You are valuable. You are of great, endless, abundant, Sacred Worth! Amen!
I came-out of a literary analysis French Literature and Philosophy background before Seminary, so imagine my joy [JUMP IN THE PULPUT] when I went to seminary and learned that literary criticism is a valid Biblical interpretive tool! Here is what we find if we look at this passage from that interpretive perspective:
This moment in the Gospel of Mark is literally literarily so important that it is one of only TWO times in the whole Gospel when Jesus stops moving. Jesus only is said to sit down four times and two of the times he is still moving! He sits down once in Chapter 4 in a boat to get away from the crowds to tell a parable. The second time is in Chapter 11 when Jesus sits on the donkey to be brought into Jerusalem (both are means of transport). A final time, in Chapter 16, he sits down in heaven after resurrection, but that is a highly disputed “third ending to Mark.” It is really only this time in the Gospel of Mark when Jesus explicitly stops moving and just observes life, and that is worth paying attention to. This is the only moment of stillness where the whole story slows down. I would argue that it does this to make us pay attention! In this singular moment of sitting down and paying attention to the human world and how it works, he observes a widow without worth making an unproductive donation, and yet he declares that her power, her purpose, her worth is beyond all others. RADICAL! In this, the only moment of stillness and true observation in the Jesus story according to Mark, Jesus flips all meaning on its head. You are of Sacred Worth!
Out of this singular stillness a revelation of great ethical value emerges. You are powerful—showing-up and putting in your effort is worth it. You are always worth it.
What could Mighty Mite Could do? Everything.
Let me wrap this up by going right to the heart of it. You are not a computer or a robot, and you need to stop thinking you can become one if only you try harder.
I’ve been having conversations with a lot of people being really hard on themselves recently, and as a minister I am deeply concerned that we are losing the ability to measure our worth and data as humans rather than as computers. Outcomes are always expected to be equal or greater to the inputs. Human capitol, human capacity for work and for time is measured alongside automated systems. Think of the self check-out line at the supermarket or shopping on Amazon. How can we compete? We can’t and won’t from a data-driven paradigm.
Efficiency is our new religion. Efficiency is our new idol. The only thing that can save us is this widow’s story and The Theology of the Hammer applied to our whole lives. Computers are only going to get better, my friends. Many of us, even ministers or professors, who think our jobs are secure might awaken to new competition. Efficiency makes work unsustainable. We must learn to value people in ways that are more than output driven.
Efficiency is in how we give and volunteer. We are only supposed to give if we get a tax return, right? We are only supposed to care about someone else and volunteer if we can post about it on social media as a selfie. It is transactional. I challenge those going to the border or on mission trips to NOT take pictures. This is not about you or your work or your friends “likes”. It is about showing up and being present.
Efficiency is also something we measure our own relationships against. As a gay man, I wake-up and thank God every morning that I am gay. I never had the expectation that relationships would look like they do on Leave it to Beaver and TV. I am so blessed to be gay because nobody expects anything from our relationships… certainly not perfection. At least we can be inefficient and get away with it! I feel deeply for my straight friends caught in a perfection pattern. You all experience a need for Efficiency in dating. Efficiency as a lover. Efficiency in marriage. Efficiency in home-buying. Efficiency and perfection in parenting. Efficiency in perfect retirement. All of these things kill real, human, complicated relationships in all their forms. How many of you find relationships to be efficient? So many divorces over things that I don’t understand. This will be especially hard to measure for the Tinder generation.
Efficiency in spirituality. We are supposed to come to church, synagogue, the stupa, etc. and find enlightenment fast and easily. If not, we feel like asking what is wrong with us? Or something must be wrong with this place? Where is the deliverable I was promised!? We have been reading Eat, Pray, Love for too long. The reality is that most of us will never find perfect enlightenment or religion or relationship with God or others. If you read the stories of the life of the Buddha, it was a very hard road. The same goes for even Jesus! But we are meant to celebrate the glimmers of light and understanding when they do peak through the veil. As Karl Barth would say, God who is totally other sometimes emerges in beautiful glimpses. God is not an efficient source of your enlightenment.
We are the bull shit finders and identifiers, Christians! We are the safeguard of the valuation of people. It is our job to know the scope of possible, to celebrate the ordinary, to do our best, to love deeply, to feel strongly, to make mistakes… TO BE INEFFICIENT for the Love of God. Especially in your loving and faith and attempts at goodness, please stay as inefficient as possible—for rationally none of this makes sense. From a data-driven and outcomes-based practices standpoint, none of this is good.
Learn how to forgive… please. Please Progressives… for the love of all that is good, learn how to forgive again and to offer grace to yourself when you aren’t perfect. You will never be perfect or offer enough and that is what makes you powerful, makes you good, and makes you of Sacred Worth.
Forgiveness and grace are trying again something that the data has already proven to be irrational. HAHA! If you want to learn love, especially for yourself, learn forgiveness is an irrational act. That is why it is so good. It is the currency of the Economy of Christ.
For the first time ever, Jesus sits down, stops moving, and watches life on earth around him and he makes a paradoxical, crazy suggestion that the thing, the vote, the effort deemed worthless and unworthy of praise is actually the key to Heaven. Inefficiency is Divine. Efficiency is dangerous. Pay attention with me, for we are in a time and a technology that will change how we understand the worth, the value, the productivity of what it means to be human.
May we always remain inefficient in love and grace.
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph ("just Jake"), Associate Minister, came to Plymouth in 2014 having served in the national setting of the UCC on the board of Justice & Witness Ministries, the Coalition for LGBT Concerns, and the Chairperson of the Council for Youth and Young Adult Ministries (CYYAM). Jake has a passion for ecumenical work and has worked in a wide variety of churches and traditions. Read more about him on our staff page.