Preaching for Reign of Christ Sunday
Rev. Erin Gilmore,
Associate Conference Minister
Rocky Mountain Conference, UCC
Carla preaches her candidating sermon on Luke 21:5-19.
The Rev. Carla Cain will begin her ministry as designated-term associate minister (two years) on Dec. 15, 2019.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregationall UCC
What do you think of when I say the word “kingdom"? Is the first thing that pops into your head the Magic Kingdom or the United Kingdom? Well, God’s kingdom is not about territorial borders. It’s not so much of a place as it is a process. That may sound a bit vague and undefined, so you’ll just have to hang in there with me and see if I can help clarify that term a bit.
The kingdom, of course, is something we pray about twice every time we say the Lord’s prayer: “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth” and “thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory.” And there are different ways to interpret that compact and somewhat loaded theological phrase.
The kingdom isn’t an easy thing to get a hold of and understand, which is why Jesus continually described it with parable, aphorism, and metaphor. Some people interpret the kingdom as being the life hereafter or life after the second coming of Christ. But, when Jesus says, it “is among you,” he is using the present tense. That sentence can also be translated as “the kingdom of God is in your midst.” It’s not wishful thinking about a future life, but an aspiration for today.
That concise passage of scripture is perhaps the most important sentence to me in the New Testament: “the kingdom of God is among you.” It’s brief, but it’s absolutely critical. The odd thing is that these two critical verses, which tell us that the kingdom of God is in our midst, are nowhere to be found in the Revised Common Lectionary, which provides the three-year cycle of texts used in many churches. Why?! Perhaps it’s a concept that’s a bit too radical for some in the church to digest!
Imagine if those words were preached and internalized in the heart of American Christians. Would it shift our focus from there hereafter to making God’s world a better place here and now? What would be the implications for climate change? …for immigration reform? …for stemming gun violence? …for ending homelessness? …for access to healthcare? What would be the implications in your own life? How would you live your life differently if you knew that the kingdom of God is among you right now?
There is perhaps no theology that has shaped the United Church of Christ than the theology of the kingdom of God, here and now. I say that because of the predominance of “Kingdom Theology” in the Social Gospel movement in this country, which spanned from the days following the Civil War through the end of the First World War, roughly 1865 to 1918.
Some of you will recognize this old war horse, The Pilgrim Hymnal, which was used in most Congregational UCC churches from 1904 until The New Century Hymnal was published in 1995. The first editor of The Pilgrim Hymnal was Washington Gladden, senior minister at First Congregational Church in Columbus, Ohio. Gladden was called the father of the Social Gospel movement. Now, some of you think that the theology of The New Century Hymnal is a bit radical, but The Pilgrim Hymnal had an entire section called “The Kingdom of God on Earth.” Let me read you the words to a hymn by Frederick Hosmer, a Unitarian minister who taught at Harvard Divinity School:
“Thy kingdom come, O Lord, wide-circling as the sun; fulfill of old thy word, and make the nations one.
“One in the bond of peace, the service glad and free, of truth and righteousness, of love and equity.
“Till rise in ordered plan, on firm foundations broad, the commonwealth of man, the city of our God.”
Saying those things in certain circles today will have you branded as a liberal! It’s radical stuff with serious political ramifications, and it’s been part of our tradition for a century.
The most influential theologian of the Social Gospel movement was Walter Rauschenbusch, a German-born American Baptist, who served in Hell’s Kitchen in New York and taught at Colgate-Rochester School of Divinity. “The kingdom of God,” he wrote in 1907, “is a collective conception involving the whole social life of man. It is not a matter of saving human atoms, but of saving the social organism. It is not a matter of getting individuals to heaven, but of transforming life on earth into the harmony of heaven.”
Because of the dominance of this theology in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, I think one can make a case that it helped shape the politics of the Progressive Era, when government came to grips with the Industrial Revolution. And I think one can make a case that it also informed the New Deal and increased governmental involvement in providing jobs and relief for those who were battered by the Great Depression. If you were to say the phrase, “the Kingdom of God” to Teddy or Franklin Roosevelt, they would have known that you were talking about God’s liberating reign of justice, here and now.
So, what is the good news? It is that the kingdom of God is here among us. That can fuel hope enough for a lifetime.
Vida Dutton Scudder, an Episcopal Social Gospeler and Wellesley professor, listed three ways Christians can respond to a growing awareness of human suffering: direct charity, social reform, and social transformation. Charity involves giving to those who are suffering (when you give shelter to a family experiencing homelessness); social reform means creating and supporting organizations for their care (like Neighbor to Neighbor); social transformation is about justice and changing the structures that cause suffering, which often seem intractable. The aim of the kingdom is radical, and includes dramatic social transformation.
Virtually every church in Fort Collins will respond to crises with charity. But our congregation is one of the very few that has a calling and an ability to concentrate on advocacy: on changing systems that allow homelessness, hunger, and inadequate education to persist. That’s the reason that when Moms Demand Action shows up at our senator’s office to talk about sane gun laws, half of the 40 people there are Plymouth members.
And yet, if you are like me, sometimes you find it easy to lose hope that justice will prevail in our nation and even that the kingdom of is among us. And in times like these, we need to remember that the long arc of history bends toward justice. It is a very long arc, so people like you and me need to keep the faith in the meantime. Good things eventually happen when we work together and when we work with God: things like the Good Friday Accord that ended years of violence in Northern Ireland. Here are some lines from the Irish poet Seamus Heaney:
“Human beings suffer.
They torture one another.
They get hurt and get hard. …
History says, Don’t hope
On this side of the grave,
But then, once in a lifetime,
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme.
So hope for a great sea-change
On the far side of revenge….
Believe in miracles
And cures and healing wells.”
The word of hope is this, my friends: that the kingdom of God is among us, and that we are a part of a force for goodness and wholeness in the world…that the kingdom of God is still unfolding. And that in your lifetime, hope and history will rhyme.
 Frederick Hosmer in The Pilgrim Hymnal. (Boston: Pilgrim Press, 1958), number 448.
 Walter Rauschenbusch, Christianity and the Social Crisis. (NY: Macmillan, 1907), p. 65.
 I am indebted to Marcus Borg for this analysis. See The Heart of Christianity. (SF: HarperSanFrancisco, 2003), p. 201
 Seamus Heaney, from “The Cure at Troy” in Opened Ground, (NY: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1996) p. 305
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.
Isaiah 25: 6-10a
All Saints Sunday, November 3, 2019
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
25:6 On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.
25:7 And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever.
25:8 Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken.
25:9 It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the LORD for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.
25:10a For the hand of the LORD will rest on this mountain.
The poetic prophecy of Isaiah is set against the backdrop of the Hebrew peoples’ physical and spiritual devastation when a foreign empire conquers their country and destroys their city, Jerusalem. Families are pulled apart as captives are taken into slavery in exile. Their homes are torn down around them. There is death all around. It seemed as if God had abandoned them! Death had cast a shroud over the whole people. If images from recent news of refugee camps and the devastation of Middle Eastern cities are coming to your mind, then you are getting the situation of God’s people in this text.
Death is an “active force of negativity that moves to counter and cancel and prevent well-being,” writes Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann.[i] Death, in its many forms, leaves us feeling diminished and separated from God. Grief after death is not a one time visitor....it’s thread runs through our lives in many ways. As a chaplain friend of mine says, “There are so many little deaths in life – dying is just one of them.”
We most certainly experience the shroud of death Isaiah speaks of when our loved ones die. Some deaths are just way before their time and come with tragic circumstances. And even when the death of a loved one has been peaceful and comes naturally at the end of a vital, productive life we can still feel the devastation of loneliness and abandonment. We grieve many other losses in life..... job loss – relationship loss – loss of meaning in the midst of despair and depression – loss of community in moving across the country – the loss of a beloved pet. We grieve when we hear the news of violence against other human beings – gun violence, domestic violence, the violence of prejudice and injustices of all kinds, the violence of war. We grieve when we hear of and experience ecological violence against God’s creation. And we often feel helpless in the midst of grief, disgraced that we cannot lift ourselves up from the mire, that we cannot change the circumstances that caused us or others to grieve. We feel alone.
In all these experiences our hearts, our souls, long for companions in community and in the presence of God. We need those who will walk beside us, following our lead as we move through the sorrow, the anger, the numbness, the loneliness. We need companions without judgment, without time frames, or fix-it solutions to cheer us up. We need companions who patiently walk with us toward the hope of transformation. The best gift we can give someone in grief is simply being a companion.
The poet, Patricia McKernon Runkle beautifully expresses this kind of companioning in her poem “When You Meet Someone Deep in Grief.”
Slip off your needs
and set them by the door.
this darkened chapel
hollowed by loss
hallowed by sorrow
its gray stone walls
are here to listen
not to sing.
Kneel in the back pew.
Make no sound,
let the candles
In other words, just be. You do not have to fix. Listen. Or simply sit in silence with the one in grief. Your presence is the balm, the greatest “fix” you can offer.
The prophet Isaiah proclaims that our companioning God invites us to sit and be at God’s table of hope and abundance in the midst of grief and loss – in the midst of the many little dyings, as well as the big ones, in the midst of fear and devastation. At God’s table we are transformed by God’s companioning. God feeds us with love in a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines – or here in Fort Collins, maybe we should say, well-brewed beer. The prophet declares that God will destroy the shroud, the sheet of deep grief that is spread over all nations; God will swallow up death forever and will wipe away the tears from all faces. I believe that in the death and resurrection of Jesus who is now the Christ, the redeeming presence of God with us, death was swallowed up forever in an ultimate and cosmic way that is both mystery and revelation. And we can trust this mystery because of the new life that it reveals.
Friends, here in this community of God’s saints we endeavor to companion one another on the journey of life’s mystery that extends through and beyond physical death. God is our ever-present companion drawing us all together. As companioning community we are tangible evidence of the presence of God in all our lives.
You have been and continue to be companions of your pastors as we continue to walk through the grief of my son’s death and through the grief of Hal’s cancer diagnosis and treatment. You are with us in tangible and intangible ways, in prayers, in the mountains of cards you have sent. You are with us in the prayer flags that you made for me after Colin’s death. They hung on our back fence for at least nine months until I noticed early this summer that they were disappearing. I finally realized those darn squirrels were taking them. Irritated I went out to salvage what was left, muttering to myself, “Those were MY prayer flags!”
Then later that day Hal took me to our deck and pointed up. There in a very large, very tall, evergreen in our neighbor’s yard, way at the top of the tree, was a very colorful squirrel’s nest, made with prayer flags. They had been “transformed!” So they still companion me....and I hear Colin’s laughter each time I look at them. They assure me of God’s companioning presence that comes through you and through the beauty and surprise of nature.
The words of Isaiah assure us that God’s hope is as abundant as a great feast. And that the shroud of death is not the ultimate future. God’s life is the ultimate future. God’s presence offers transformation because God is the ultimate companion in the many deaths of our lives. God comes into the darkened chapel of our souls and sits with us as a congregation of one, listening to our grief. God sends us to one another to listen as companions in grief. And through our companioning we are transformed in our individual grief as well as in our community. Transformed to companion those here in Fort Collins, in northern Colorado, in our country and around the world who suffer the death-dealing forces violence, prejudice and injustice.
Even in the very real ache of grief we can say with the prophet and with conviction, God will swallow up death forever. God will wipe away all tears and take away the shroud of disgrace that covers the earth through human violence and greed. Don’t you want to participate with this companioning God in this miraculous transformation? The invitation is open as we companion one another through God’s love.
© The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, 2019. All rights reserved. Permission is granted to reprint Patricia McKernon Runkle's poem from her website: griefscompass.com.
[i] Walter Bruggemann, Isaiah 1 -39, (Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY: 1998, 199).
[ii] Patricia McKernon Runkle, “When You Meet Someone Deep in Grief”. The is poem is reprinted here with the permission of the poet. You can discover more about Patricia McKernon Runkle at her website, www.griefscompass.com and on Good Reads. Her book on her own grief journey after her brother’s death is titled, Grief’s Compass; Walking the Wilderness with Emily Dickinson.
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.