First Sunday in Advent, Year C
Plymouth Congregational, UCC
Fort Collins, CO
Welcome to Advent! And Happy New Year! You may remember that the first Sunday in Advent is the first day of a new liturgical and new lectionary year. We begin anew each Advent in our journey through the stories of our lives with the Holy in scripture, worship and community. The Hebrew scripture lectionary text for today sets us on this new journey following the ancient and trusted paths of God. Our text comes from the prophet, Jeremiah, who is speaking to the people of Jerusalem as they are once again threatened by the Babylonians with colonization and exile. The people are living in fear, not sure how to respond to another looming threat - yet again. Times are very uncertain. Where is God in the midst of this crisis? Is God in the midst of it? Jeremiah brings the people a word of hope.
14The time is coming, declares the HOLY ONE, when I will fulfill my gracious promise with the people of Israel and Judah. 15In those days and at that time, I will raise up a righteous branch from David's line, who will do what is just and right in the land. 16In those days, Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is what [Jerusalem, the city of God,] will be called: YAHWEH, the HOLY ONE, Is Our Righteousness. - Common English Bible with Apocrypha - eBook [ePub] (Kindle Locations 31226-31231).
Jerusalem, the city of God, the dwelling place of the Holy in the temple’s Ark of the Covenant will be called: YAHWEH, the HOLY ONE, Is Our Righteousness. Jerusalem, will be a place called “God is our righteousness.” I find that intriguing! The time is coming! In those days, there will be a place called righteousness led by one who is part of the righteous branch of leaders descending from God’s chosen king, David. In fact, in some translations this leader is synonymous with Jerusalem and is also named, “God is our righteousness.” This was a word of great hope for our ancient ancestors in faith. There will be a place called righteousness! Hope in this place that you already know and call home.
When our Advent candle lighting liturgy asked us to ponder where we find hope, where did you go? Was it a hard place to find? Did you go to an event? A person? An activity that you participate in regularly? A community? Did you look for God? Outside of yourself? Or did you go inside where the Holy dwells in each of us?
I did not find this an easy question. And I was the one who put the question into our liturgy for today, knowing it was uncomfortable question and that I did not have a ready answer. The outcomes of the two trials that have held our national attention in the last few weeks came to my mind, the trial of those convicted of killing Ahmaud Armery and the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse. One of those outcomes gave me hope. But the other did not.
Then I wondered why I was always looking outside myself for evidence of hope. Do you do that? I think it’s a common practice. Then, I thought, perhaps, it would be best to begin my search for hope by going within to rest in the presence of God, then look at the world through the lens of the Holy. Isn’t that what I profess and preach and counsel - living within the steady, abundant, forgiving lovingkindness of the Holy One who lives within all of us, within all of creation and whose very being we live within?
Advent prompts us to live with this uncomfortable question: where do we find real Hope? Are we always waiting for it? Is it always in those days that are coming? Or can we claim it in the present of our lives? The prophet, Jeremiah prompts us to have hope in the coming of a “place called God is our righteousness.” His geographic and metaphoric place was Jerusalem. Obviously, Jerusalem, that holy and fractured city of God, is not within our immediate geographic landscape. Where is our “place called God is Our righteousness” where we find the hope of Advent?
Righteousness is a funny, old-fashioned kind of word in our times. We most often hear it used in combination with the word, “self.” No one likes a self-righteous person, someone who thinks they know better than the rest of us how to live, what decisions to make, what is definitively and ethically right or wrong for everyone else. A judgmental kind of person whom we would hope follows their own advice, yet sometimes we are not sure if they do.
In the Hebrew scriptures, “righteousness” frequently used to describe God’s faithful people in contrast to the “wicked” who have departed from God. In that context righteousness does have ethical implications that can direct our lives. Yet these are encompassed in something bigger that right and wrong rules. Righteousness is the Hebrew scriptures is following the path, the way of the Holy ONE through all of life’s inner and outer journeys. As one contemporary Hebrew scholar writes, “A righteous person is not one who lives a religiously pious life, the common interpretation of this word, he [or she] is one who follows the correct path, the path (way) of God.”[i] What is the pathway of God? Scripture gives us so many images and instructions, The prophet, Micah, tells us, “To do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with our God.” Jesus showed in his living, as well as in his teachings, how to love God, neighbor and self, how to live within the unfolding and ever-enlivening realm of God’s justice, peace and love. He followed God’s pathway through life to death and beyond to new life.
Each Sunday we gather in worship to hear and to respond to another way to follow in God’s path. Each Sunday, we celebrate God’s ways are challenged by God’s ways as God’s beloved community of faith named Plymouth UCC in Fort Collins, CO. Could it be that we are already living into a place called ‘God in Our Righteousness,” our right path?
In this moment of worship? This moment of worship on the first Sunday of Advent in 2021, begins a new journey through a new liturgical year. What does it mean for us to seek God’s hope in our place called “God is Our Righteousness” in our internal lives of faith and in our external life of faith in community?
Lutheran pastor and author, the Rev. Heidi Neumark, loves Advent and loves to write about it. She has been the pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Manhattan, NYC since 2003. Prior to that she spent nineteen years as pastor and community organizer at Transfiguration Lutheran in the South Bronx. She writes prophetically from the experience of working with the poor and disenfranchised. Her words on Advent stir me. She writes, “Probably the reason I love Advent so much is that it is a reflection of how I feel most of the time. … Advent unfailingly embraces and comprehends my reality. And what is that? I think of the Spanish word, anhelo, or longing. Advent is when the church can no longer contain its unfulfilled desire and the cry of anhelo, bursts forth: … O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”[ii]
On this first Sunday in Advent we can say with longing, “Come, Holy One who became Emmanuel, God-with-us! We long for your presence to transform us and then through us to transform our world that still bends toward the violence and greed of empire, of the ruling Babylons of our day. Come, lead us to the place, the life, called “God is Our Righteousness!” Lead us to live within God’s ways and remember that God’s ways live within us. Come! We long to stand confidently within Jeremiah’s prophecy, the days are surely coming! Without reservation, we long to rejoice in the coming of God-With-Us, which has already been, yet is now, and will be again and again and again!
As the days in the season of Advent literally grow shorter and hold darkness, we realize that the “dark”, often a place of unknowing, is the place that holds the mystery of God’s presence. We do not always know how to hope, yet we dare to hope for we live together God who is our right path. We do not always have the light to transform injustice into justice, but we stand with Emmanuel, God-With-Us, in the Jerusalem of this beloved community, that promises to be a place of God’s righteousness. We do not, and may not in our lifetimes, see all the transformation and renewal of our broken, yet beautiful, world that we long to see, to experience. Yet we stand in the hope of Advent, of longing, of the promises of the prophet, together with the Holy ONE and we are not alone. Others have gone before us, many others long with us and others will follow as we “trust in the slow work of God.”[iii]
The Jesuit scholar and lover of God, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, reminds us, “We are quite naturally impatient in everything to reach the end without delay. We should like to skip the intermediate stages. We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new. And yet it is the law of all progress that it is made by passing through some stages of instability—and that it may take a very long time.”[iv] Our longing is holy. It “trusts in the slow work of God.”[v] It anchors us, grounds us in the place within and without called “God is Our Righteousness.” It is the Advent Hope that can carry us through all seasons. Thanks be to God. Amen.
©The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson, 2021 and beyond. May be reprinted with permission only.
[i] Jeff A. Benner, https://www.ancient-hebrew.org/definition/righteous.htm.
[ii] Gary W. Charles, “Homiletical Perspective”, Jerimiah 33.14-16, Year C, Feasting on the Word Lectionary Commentary, edited by David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, (Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY: 2009, 5).
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.
Rev. J.T. Smiedendorf
Plymouth Congregational Church UCC
Fort Collins, CO
Colossians 1:15–20 (The Message):
We look at this Son and see the God who cannot be seen. We look at this Son and see God’s original purpose in everything created. For everything, absolutely everything, above and below, visible and invisible, rank after rank after rank of angels—everything got started in Christ and finds its purpose in Christ. Christ was there before any of it came into existence and holds it all together right up to this moment. And when it comes to the church, Christ organizes and holds it together, like a head does a body.
Christ was supreme in the beginning and—leading the resurrection parade—Christ is supreme in the end. From beginning to end Christ is there, towering far above everything, everyone. So spacious is Christ, so expansive, that everything of God finds its proper place in Christ without crowding. Not only that, but all the broken and dislocated pieces of the universe—people and things, animals and atoms—get properly fixed and fit together in vibrant harmonies, all because of Christ’s death, Christ’s blood that poured down from the cross.
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
Pope Pius XI 1925
It was 1925.
Mussolini had been the leader of Italy for three years; and a rabble-rouser named Hitler had been out of jail for a year and his Nazi party was growing in popularity. The world lay in a great Depression: a depression that would become far worse over the next fifteen years.
This is what Pope Pius XI saw in the world.
This is why he inaugurated in 1925 what we now call Reign of Christ Sunday. At that moment, amidst the rise of anxiety and authoritarian figures, the church needed the image of Christ, the wounded and crucified one, the humble servant, the healer, the prophet of peace and justice as the One Seated on the Throne. At that moment, the world of Christian faith and maybe the world as a whole needed a reminder of what a true leader looked like, what power was for, and where it came from.
In such a time, Pope Pius XI amidst all of those new dictators and false values in the world, proclaimed Christ is Sovereign of the universe.
That proclamation can and should be made again today for we too live amidst actual and would be authoritarians seeking worldly power, promising to quench human fear and anxiety by bringing a certain kind of law and order, punishing the troublemakers, those ‘others’ who are the cause of our anxiety and struggles. Humans here and all around the world can still be tempted by the simple solution of blame, separation, and domination.
Powers of death
I believe the apostle Paul would see this movement toward the authoritarian as the powers and principalities of death at work. That is to say, they threaten the very fabric of Life.
Last Sunday, we affirmed Life Over Death, focusing on the acceptance of and wisdom in our mortality. We affirmed that Life (capital L) holds our personal death and even overcomes it beyond the ego self.
This Reign of Christ Sunday, we affirm something even bigger: that the Christ power of Life overcomes the powers and principalities of Death themselves. These powers of Death might use our individual fear of death to control or threaten, but their drive and their consequence is not merely about individual mortality, but about the Death of Life itself.
Operating with dominant power over others and expecting and enforcing the acquiescence and oppression of many including the earth, the powers of Death act against God’s intention for Creation, the very Life principle of interdependence of all, and the soul’s longing for freedom, connection, and wholeness.
Indeed, when these powers reign, there is not the Love that heals and connects, but the fear that divides and the distrust that separates and discourages. When Caesar or Mussolini is on the throne, nuclear winter and ecological collapse are on the horizon, genocide and apartheid (subtle and overt) are nearby, while idols, entertainments, and distractions seek to mute underlying depression and disempowerment. The same will happen when consumerism, militarism, materialism, and tribalism are the reigning powers.
Ernst Becker, Denial of Death, Terror Mgmt Theory
In his Pulitzer Prize winning book of the early 1970s, The Denial of Death, Ernst Becker claims that human civilization is ultimately an elaborate, symbolic defense mechanism against the knowledge of our mortality. Our basic survival instinct, our drive to exist as a distinct person is challenged by the impossibility of bodily immortality. Humanity is able to transcend the dilemma of mortality through an "immortality project" in which one creates or becomes part of something which one feels will be part of something eternal; something that will never die, giving one the feeling that one’s life has meaning; a purpose; significance in the grand scheme of things.
Becker argues that the conflict between immortality projects which contradict each other (particularly in religion) is the wellspring for the destruction and misery in our world caused by wars, bigotry, genocide, racism, nationalism, and so forth, since an immortality project which contradicts others indirectly suggests that the others are wrong.
I don’t think Becker was suggesting that immortality projects are necessarily bad things, but that they are necessary and that they can become bad. Our inability to find peace with the paradox of meaningful life and inevitable death creates trouble. If, in our deep angst about death, our deep identification with our ego drives our immortality project, we may drive that ‘project’ right over someone else. The Nazi’s were a collective expression of the German anxiety of national death, a terror of not surviving the traumatic times of and after World War I and that became a reason to inflict terror. Their immortality project was known as the Third Reich was supposed to last for a thousand years.
The powers and principalities that Paul talks of take over human immortality projects and empower the reign of many anti-Christs known by tragic names in our present and past, names of infamous leaders, and by the names of ‘isms’ that steamrolled over people and planet.
The writer of today’s Scripture poem, the hymn we heard in Colossians proclaims another Sovereign power, another head and heart of all things: The Eternal Sovereign Christ presence that was witnessed and worshipped. In its time, it was practically subversive to claim another Sovereign power other than Caesar and Rome. More importantly, it was subversive to not live the way of Empire where might makes right, where you get yours first and defeat your enemies, and where the desires of the few eclipse the needs of the many and of Creation.
Our invitation of faith on this Reign of Christ Sunday is to do the same, to be subversive in that way, to let Christ Reign. Not Christ as a mascot for our team, for our tribe. Not Christ as figurehead. Not Christ as our Caesar. But the Way of Christ to be our Sovereign authority, the author of our days, the shaper of our ways of being and being together. Our Sovereign is not an emperor, not a CEO or conventional leader,
but a wounded healer,
a prophet of truth to power,
a radically welcoming gatherer of the marginalized,
a devout student of the Great Mystery,
and a peaceful warrior of the soul surrendered to service.
Does this sound all too lofty and pie in the sky? Christ as Sovereign? Maybe.
Faith can seem that way sometimes, a kind of foolishness.
History has much to suggest Caesar and Caesar’s ways and values are still in charge. It doesn’t seem like Christ is Reigning.
And yet the invitation of faith remains, to let the Way of Christ Reign, even to trust that it has already begun.
Listen again to the passage, from the New Revised Standard version,
“God has rescued us from the power of darkness
and transferred us into the realm of the beloved Son,
in whom we have redemption”
Past tense. It has been done.
It is the power of Resurrection where the Way of Life conquers even the empires and ways of death.
Today is the conclusion, the end of our annual cycle of telling the sacred story of Jesus as Christ and of the call of Christ Jesus to the people.
And what an appropriate end toward which we journey; the Reign of Christ in our lives and societies. Let me be clear, not the reign of Christians or of one religion, tribal and dominant. Not a rigid and punishing theocracy. Not a culture of conformity.
Instead, our prayer is like our final song in today’s worship:
Lead on eternal Sovereign, we follow in your way;
Loud rings your cry for justice, your call for peace this day:
Through prayerful preparation, your grace will make us strong,
To carry on the struggle to triumph over wrong.
Lead on eternal Sovereign, we follow not with fear,
For in each human conflict your words of strength we hear:
That when we serve with gladness, you will not let us fall,
Our trust is in your promise that love will conquer all.
Lead on eternal Sovereign, till sin’s fierce war shall cease,
And all your saints together will sing a hymn of peace;
Then all in your dominion will live with hearts set free,
To love and serve each other for all eternity.
J.T. comes to Plymouth as an experienced interim pastor, most recently, as Bridge Minister at University Congregational UCC in Seattle. Previously, he served congregations in Denver, Laramie, and Forest Grove, Oregon. Read more
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. I heard a loud voice from the throne say, “Look! God’s dwelling is here with humankind. He will dwell with them, and they will be his peoples. God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more. There will be no mourning, crying, or pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” Then the one seated on the throne said, “Look! I’m making all things new.” He also said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Then he said to me, “All is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will freely give water from the life-giving spring”. (Common English Bible)
I don’t often preach from Revelation, but this familiar passage transmits the vision of hope that we need in the midst of the pandemic. God will wipe away every tear, will dwell with us, DOES dwell with us through Christ, and invites us into partnership as co-creators of God’s realm.
I reread the whole of Revelation a couple of years ago, and it occurred to me that it actually reads like Harry Potter with all kinds of magical beasts, battles of good and evil, dark arts, and the rest. And it provides the beautiful vision that I just read.
The New Jerusalem probably isn’t going to descend from the clouds. In fact, I would claim that it is here, at least in part, for those who have eyes to see it. That vision of a new heaven and a new earth is the kingdom of God writ large. It is the realm that Jesus proclaimed in his preaching and that Luke’s gospel says is already among us. The eschaton, or the final chapter in God’s intention for us, could be violent battle (as described in Revelation) or it could be nonviolent, marked by justice and by peace. Which of those visions is congruent with Jesus’ vision for the world? Didn’t the kingdom of God he proclaimed begin with his pronouncement, and doesn’t it continue with us today? It is clearly not here in its fullness, but it is unfolding across the millennia.
I had an interesting email conversation with one of our members last week, and he appropriately challenged something I wrote in my reflection last Tuesday about seeing a world not of “us and them,” but that we all are “us.” And I think it is so easy to focus on the negatives in our culture (like people protesting against Larimer County’s Health Department, which is trying to keep us safe and alive). But there is more to the story. Aren’t we Christians called to faith, hope, and love? To love our enemies? Even in the face of violence, that is the story I try to live out, if for no other reason, it feels deeply right, and helps build a tiny piece of the kingdom…maybe just the size of a Lego brick, but many bricks build God’s realm. And we need everyone to add a brick.
This is what our mission statement at Plymouth says about that: “It is our mission to worship God and help make God’s realm visible in the lives of people individually and collectively. We do this by inviting, transforming, and sending.” Making God’s realm visible. That’s at the crux of John’s vision of a New Jerusalem.
If you are here this morning or watching online, somehow, you have been invited. Someone told you about Plymouth, or you were invited by our website or a Google search or by our sign on Prospect or Lake Street. Somehow, you’ve been invited in, and invited to eat at Christ’s table.
At some point or points in your life, or at some point in the future, the pattern of your life will be changed by your faith in God. That transformation may be subtle, or it may be a lightning bolt or a two-by-four applies to the side of your head by the movement of the Holy Spirit. It may mean being born again…and again…and again. Think for a moment: How has your life been transformed, or how do you want it to be transformed?
And you have been or will be sent forth to engage others in the spread of God’s realm of justice, peace, and love. The word mission has as its Latin root the noun missio, which means “sending.” Mission is the third component part of Plymouth’s mission statement: getting out there and doing God’s work.
Some of that is what you heard Bobbi describe this morning, and it is something you can support at our Alternative Giving Fair on November 21…just two weeks away! There are all kinds of ways that you can be a part of sending support from Plymouth across the world or down the block in support of mission. (And none of this Christmas gift-giving will be affected by container-ship backups at ports in California.)
There are also all kinds of ways that your regular giving to Plymouth supports our mission: Your gifts made our livestream possible. And we even supported smaller congregations in the Rocky Mountain Conference with simple video broadcast equipment as the pandemic broke out. Plymouth is the largest donor to the Interfaith Council of Fort Collins, (which supports many community organizations) and to Our Church’s Wider Mission, which supports the justice work of the national church, In the Mud grants throughout the conference, as well as new programs and staff in antiracism.
And we have hands-on opportunities for making a difference as well, whether through Habitat builds, being a Stephen Minister, supplying international students with furnishings, working for sane gun laws and immigration reform, or helping with the Giving Fair. Next month, our teens will again be sleeping out on Plymouth’s front lawn…last year they raised over $30,000 for homelessness prevention.
One of the pitfalls that some of us may fall into is in thinking that we have to do it all…that saving the world is our job alone. Of course, that isn’t realistic, and it’s also not theologically sound. When Jesus says, “The kingdom of God is among you,” he is using the second person plural, and if he was from the South, he’d have said, “The kingdom of God is among Y’ALL!” Being a co-creator of the realm of God isn’t primarily about what I do, but about what WE do together. Plymouth cannot answer all the needs of Fort Collins, so our focus tends to be on areas that other congregations cannot or will not do. Clearly not every congregation will address LGBTQ concerns, immigration justice, housing insecurity, or gun violence…but we do! We do the work that others can’t or won’t.
Our new Strategic Plan talks about us embodying Beloved Community and building new bridges to the community, especially to CSU. That is mission! Even in the midst of a pandemic, we are continuing to work for God’s realm in larger and smaller ways.
One of our late members, Bob Calkins, was a warm and wise man. Whenever I tended to over-complicate things theologically, he would say, “Hal, it’s all about LOVE.” I still hear him saying that to me when I get caught up in the details. And “sending” is about showing and sharing our love.
Valerie Kaur, a wise Sikh writer and civil rights activist, says, “Love is more than a feeling. Love is a form of sweet labor: fierce, bloody, imperfect, and life-giving — a choice we make over and over again. If love is sweet labor, love can be taught, modeled, and practiced. This labor engages all our emotions. Joy is the gift of love. Grief is the price of love. Anger protects that which is loved. And when we have reached our limit, wonder is the act that returns us to love. Revolutionary love is the choice to enter into wonder and labor for others, for our opponents, and for ourselves in order to transform the world around us.”
You and I don’t have to do it all. We have companions on this journey, and we have God with us every step of the way to guide us, love us, give us hope. You don’t have to do it all by yourself. You just need to take your Lego brick and find a way to put it to good use in building God’s realm.
© 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.
 Luke 17.20
 Valerie Kaur, See No Stranger (NY: One World, 2020), p. xv.
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.
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
Fort Collins, CO
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
On this mountain the [Holy One] of heavenly forces will prepare for all peoples a rich feast, a feast of choice wines, of select foods rich in flavor, of choice wines well refined. [She] will swallow up on this mountain the veil that is veiling all peoples, the shroud enshrouding all nations. [He] will swallow up death forever. The [ONE God]will wipe tears from every face; God will remove the people's disgrace from off the whole earth, for God has spoken. They will say on that day, "Look! This is our God, for whom we have waited—and God has saved us! This is the ONE, for whom we have waited; let's be glad and rejoice in the Holy One’s salvation!" Bible, Common English. CEB Common English Bible with Apocrypha - eBook [ePub] (Kindle Locations 27223-27235).
When I lived in Denver, the drive I took to First Plymouth UCC church where I served had not one, but two, major scenic vistas of the mountains as you came to the top of big hills on Hampden Avenue. It was stunning to watch them each morning and see how they changed with the seasons. I often thought to myself, “I live on the edge of a great feast of beauty. Yet I’m not partaking of the nourishment!” My family and I rarely went to the mountains. Busy lives of church and work and school activities distracted us from participating in the feast. I guess we feasted in other ways. I know that so many of you make the feast of our Rocky Mountains a regular part of your lives! Good for you! And I realize now that I always feasted my eyes on the glory of the mountains as I drove to work and often remarked to my children about the views.
Our brothers and sisters of Mexican heritage have such a beautiful feasting tradition in their Day of the Dead celebration which takes place on November 1st and 2nd, the same days as All Saints and All Souls Days from European traditions. They lay out a feast for their ancestors who have died, remembering them with all their favorite foods, golden marigold petals and candles to light their way home and envisioning the spirits as butterflies who fly joyfully in for a visit. They do not sanitize their grief or push it away. Instead, they ritualize it with tangible, touchable remembrances. They invite both tears and laughter into the celebration.
Our scripture today brings us healing images of a great feast of abundant life served by God on the top of God’s holy mountain, Zion. And the context for this prophetic healing feast is grief. Isaiah’s poetic prophecy is set against the backdrop of the Hebrew people’s physical and spiritual devastation after they have been conquered by a foreign empire and seen the destruction of their city, Jerusalem and its beautiful temple built by King Solomon. Families were pulled apart as captives were taken into slavery in exile. Homes are torn down around the people still living in them. There was death all around. Don’t you know that the people felt that God had abandoned them? Death cast a shroud over everything.
Does that sound familiar? A shroud over everything? I think that is an apt description of our times after 18-19 months of pandemic. We have felt death, many kinds of death, as an active force of negativity, a shroud, a pall, during these months. We already knew that grief and death were not one-time visitors in this life. They thread their way through our lives in so many ways. We grieve many losses that are small deaths as well as the big deaths of loved ones and friends –job loss – relationships loss – loss of meaning in the midst of despair and depression – loss of health in a diagnosis – loss of community in a move– the loss of a beloved pet – then all the losses of the Covid 19 pandemic piled on top. And in the midst of pandemic, the grief of racism came to us with renewed force as we were already grieving so many injustices in our political system. Sometimes we feel so helpless when we are caught in the grip of grief, so 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 very alone.
Yet we are not alone. The Hebrew people were not alone. They had a prophet telling them that God was preparing salvation for them, salvation as abundant as a feast with fine wines, perhaps all their favorite foods! Salvation as amazing as wiping away every tear and conquering death forever. Death will be no more! Suffering will be no more! Now that is salvation!!
While we are caught up in profound lamentation and grief, God, the Holy ONE, brings hope in the assurance of God’s presence and God’s ultimate deliverance of all people, not just the Hebrew people, but all of the God’s people, from the power of death. Scholar, Christopher Sietz, tells us that is what the phrase, “God will remove the people's disgrace from off the whole earth” means….all the people, not just the Hebrew people. And I would add all of God’s beloved creation, for we cannot be separate as human beings from creation. We are creation. God will deliver ALL from the power of death. This is a vision of hope and the vision we celebrate today in Totenfest here at Plymouth as our Mexican sisters and brothers prepare to celebrate the Day of the Dead.
On this day that we remember those in our Plymouth family and in the wider communities of our individual lives who have died since when we last celebrated this day together. We speak their names. And we are not alone. We “feast” with one another this day as we do throughout the year, that is we companion one another. In an echo of God’s companioning presence, using the example of Jesus, God-with-Us, we are with one another, in joy and in sorrow, in all seasons, in pandemics and in times of health. In times of justice-making and in times of injustice protesting. We are not alone for God, who has the power to in community. Grief experts around the world will tell you that the best thing you can give someone who is in grief is your presence. Simply being a companion.
Here we are today in the great communion of saints. We are all saints of God, my friends, not because we are something extra special. Those designated saints of the church by our Catholic siblings were simply ordinary people following God in extraordinary circumstances. And their stories inspire us. Let us recognize that we are all followers of God today as we companion one another and acknowledge the journey of life’s mystery that extends through and beyond physical death. As we remember those who have moved beyond us on that journey this year by speaking their names in this sacred time and space, we gather in the company of all God’s saints, the living whom see around us and those who have moved into the life with God that we cannot see with earthly eyes. One of the early saints of the Christian faith, St. John Chrysostom, says to us, “Those whom we have loved and lost are no longer where they were before. They are now wherever we are.”
Let us be gathered in God’s companioning presence to speak the names of our loved ones. By this simple act we open ourselves to the transformation of our grief. It does not cease, but it allows God’s love and forgiveness to enter our hears. And this empowers us to companion those in our Fort Collins community, in our state and nation and around the world who are shrouded in grief, who raise their voices in lamentation. As we feast together in God’s transforming and companioning presence, remembering those we love so dearly, we bring the hope of love and forgiveness to all the communion of saints, the living and the dead, now and in every time and place. Amen.
©The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson, 2021 and beyond. May be reprinted only with permission.
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.