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 email@example.com 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.
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