Rev. Carla Cain began her ministry at Plymouth as a Designated Term Associate Minister (two years) in December 2019. Learn more about Carla here.
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
Here at Plymouth our Christmas Eve service is always such a beautiful, mystical collage of carols, candle-light and communion swirling around the miraculous story of the birth of Jesus – Yeshua in the Hebrew, meaning “deliverer.” What it mean this Christmas after this horrendously unique year to hear the story and receive the gift of Jesus, Deliverer?
As in years past, we heard the call of the prophet …”the people who walk in darkness have seen a great light!” We heard the story of the miraculous birth …”she brought forth her firstborn child and laid him in a manger”… and at this point I always think to myself … really, isn’t every birth miraculous because every birth is a risk!
We sang joyfully together with the angels and the shepherds the good news of God’s presence among us in the tiny child. Soon we will marvel once at the gifts brought by exotic strangers who followed a star of hope to find this particular babe. Then the gospel writer John will proclaim, ”In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God” – HE – not a concept or a philosophical idea this revelation, the Word of God, but a person. A human person of flesh and blood who is God’s light and life and love, the Holy Incarnate, God-with-us, for all people. And this revealing Word in human flesh is light shining in the darkness “and the darkness cannot overcome it.”
What does the promise of this delivering light of God-with-us mean in the midst of this horrendously unique year?
In December of 1973, the late novelist, spiritual writer and poet, Madeleine L’Engle wrote a Christmas poem reflecting on the past year and the story of the Incarnation. Some of you may remember the news of that year. For others its part of the history book narrations of the Vietnam war, the Cold War, the Space Race, the Watergate scandal and a national energy crisis. Listen with me to L’Engle’s reflections in her poem, “The Risk of Birth, Christmas, 1973.”
This is no time for a child to be born,
With earth betrayed by war & hate
And a comet slashing the sky to warn
That time runs out & the sun burns late
That was no time for a child to be born,
In a land in the crushing grip of Rome;
Honour & truth were trampled by scorn–
Yet here did the Saviour [the Deliverer] make his home.
When is the time for love to be born?
The inn is full on the planet earth,
And by a comet the sky is torn–
Yet Love still takes the risk of birth. [i]
Here in December 2020, we might say with L’Engle, This is no time for a child to be born! And I don’t need to enumerate why…we have all lived through this horrendously, uniquely hard year. We each hold our private and collective fears and griefs and heartaches.
Yet my friends, I say to you this night….it is always time for The Child to be born…the child sung to by angels and shepherds, the child who was blessed and hailed as born for greatness by elders in the temple; the child who grew to be the boy of twelve astonishing rabbis with his wisdom; the child who grew into the young man who was called away from an obscure peasant life into a path of mystical, revolutionary and revelatory ministry with the Living God that changed his times and has changed the world. The child who became the innocent man beaten and unjustly condemned by the powers of oppressive empire to carry his own execution cross, the dying man praying for the world and the dead man laid secretly in a tomb by his loved ones. The Child who as God-with-us is the Risen One, the Deliverer, proclaiming and embodying Love that conquers Death.
It is always a good time….the best of times….for Love to risk birth in the story of the Child, God-with-us! Every time we dare to tell his stories, to live into the ways of the realm of God that Jesus taught, to follow in hope the star of God’s dream for a peaceful, just, and compassionate world, to act on that dream, we are participating in the Incarnation, the Word made flesh among us.
A friend of mine and a friend of Plymouth’s, the Rev. Dr. Linda Privitera, who led our Lenten art retreat two years ago, recently sent me a wonderful prose poem she wrote this Advent in the voice of the angel, Gabriel. It seems that Gabriel is complaining to God, saying….
“I have tried – really, I have - to deliver Your message.
If I may say so I am wondering why once wasn’t enough –
You know we had such an excellent response to your invitation to bear the Holy One,
Blessed be he, into an unlikely geography where holiness is not always a given.
But…this repeating of your desire for incarnation in every generation has resulted, lately,
In some disappointment on my part.”[ii]
Gabriel goes on to wonder if he needs an updated wardrobe to get people’s attention, confessing that he has worn those special shoes with the swhoosh on the side to see if that works. Still, he says, it seems that most of the folks God has sent him ask to be God-bearers, are too distracted by their phones and Zoom meetings and Gabriel is mightily confused about what digital platform to use to get their attention. He can’t keep all the passwords straight in his brain. Then, he up and questions this new list of God-bearers that God has given him. He says to the Holy One….
“And I am wondering too about your newest lists. They are a little long and are now peopled with women of a certain age – not young – and there are men here too. That’s new … I am [still] looking for Woke. …. I see where you are coming from; does the shape for the home for the holy really have to be as it was in the past? Haven’t we seen an impressive bunch of folks who were amazing shelters for the Holy, bearing it into the world in diverse ways?”[iii]
Finally, Gabriel realizes all this God work takes more patience and he cheerfully agrees to try again and again. He ends his complaint saying, “Thanks for hearing me out. I love you, Gabe.”[iv]
My friends, we are the diverse and impressive, amazing shelters for the Holy Gabriel is being sent to find. We are the ones invited to risk birthing Love in the world. This is my image of hope on this Christmas Eve in 2020 when the earth is still betrayed by war & hate & pandemic. I leave it with you…Be delivered this year by the story of Jesus, the Deliverer, God-with-us…so that you may risk birthing, delivering, life-changing Love to the world.
Merry Christmas and Amen.
©The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson, 2020 and beyond. May be reprinted with permission only.
[i] Madeleine L’Engle, “The Risk of Birth, Christmas, 1973”, The Weather of the Heart, (Harold Shaw Publishers, Wheaton, IL: 1978, 47.)
[ii] The Rev. Dr. Linda Privitera, ”Gabriel’s Complaints”, unpublished poem, all rights reserved.
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.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
In last Thursday’s Washington Post, there was a smallish article in the national news section. It was not considered front-page news and didn’t even make it into the New York Times. Yet, I found the headline is shocking: “Nearly 8 million Americans have fallen into poverty since the summer” and the subhead reads, “Nation’s poverty rate has risen at the fastest pace ever this year after aid for the unemployed declined.” Now, I may be alone in finding this unacceptable…clearly Congress has not yet extended unemployment benefits set to expire after Christmas or sent stimulus checks to people who really need them. In the spirit of Dickens’s “Christmas Carol,” I hope that on this day they are visited by the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. Accepting a rapidly growing poverty rate is fundamentally a moral issue.
Something closer to home happened last week. I got an email from a clergy colleague here in Fort Collins, letting me know that the city and county were finally opening an isolation shelter for people experiencing homelessness and who have tested positive for Covid. There had been an outbreak at the temporary shelter on Blue Spruce Drive with 53 homeless folks and 8 staff members testing positive, so getting the isolation shelter in place was critical. Larimer County and the city, however, aren’t covering the cost of food for these people who are living in isolation. Instead, they are counting on a local nonprofit, Homeward Alliance, to raise between $30,000 and $60,000 to cover food costs. I’ve written to every member of city council, as well as to the county board of supervisors. While council members were concerned, the city manager’s office confirmed that Homeward Alliance will cover the food costs. I hope they are visited by the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. Our congregation, led by our teens, raised about $20,000 this month for homelessness prevention. We are doing our part, but we cannot do it alone.
If I was a bit jaded, I might be led to believe that many people in our country, especially political types, don’t care that much about the poor. Would I be wrong in that assumption? And yet, we certainly hear some politicians crow loudly about America being a Christian nation and the perceived threat to the free practice of Christian religion in this nation.
But shouldn’t Christians care about what Jesus said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled"? [Luke 6.20-21] Personally, I don’t consider it very faithful to ignore the poor and the hungry and the conditions that allow poverty to flourish.
It all makes me wonder whether our nominally Christian politicians have ever heard Mary’s song, the Magnificat, which is today’s text. Any Episcopalians among them hear it as part of Evensong, but sometimes its radical message gets disguised by beautiful choral settings. Listening to some of these ethereal canticles, you would never know that Mary’s words are an anti-imperial manifesto.
Her words are powerful and raw: “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.” This is a subversive song of the kingdom of God that Mary sings and that her son proclaims. This is about socioeconomic jujitsu, throwing the norms of the world on their head. This is anything but the so-called prosperity gospel…it’s not the rich and the well-fed who are blessed, it’s the poor and hungry.
I wonder how many Christians this year will hear the nativity stories and wonder why God sent Jesus not to a palace in Rome, but to a Judean peasant household…not to well-educated, well-off parents, but to an unmarried young woman. And if they do wonder about such things, do they go one step further and ponder what it means for them as people of faith? What does it mean for you? What does it mean for us at Plymouth?
We can look at Mary’s song and say, “Yeah…Caesar and Herod were really awful people and oppressed the poor.” And we can do that without ever wondering who the Caesars and Herods are in today’s setting. Imperialism has not died off over the last 2,000 years. If anything, it has flourished, especially among the nominally Christian nations of Europe and the supposedly Christian United States.
This is not a very cheery conversation to have on the final Sunday of Advent, but it is an important part of the Christmas message that we hear Mary’s words of justice and that we don’t domesticate Jesus into baby who is perpetually “meek and mild.”
We are given a choice about the path we will follow. We can follow the mainstream American path that invites us into a dog-eat-dog world of competition and survival of the fittest, where people are allowed to fall into poverty by the millions, where humans who are ill with Covid are sheltered but not fed by our government. They have made room at the inn…they just haven’t fed the hungry.
You and I are invited down a different path. It is the way of Jesus, the way of Mary, the way of God’s realm, where the poor are blessed and the hungry are fed. As Christians we are called not just to acknowledge such parts of our faith, but to put them into practice and to encourage others to do the same. So, if you are looking for something to do this afternoon, call Senators Bennet and Gardner and Congressman Neguse or Ken Buck, if you’re in his district, and encourage them to restore unemployment benefits set to expire after Christmas and to get an economic relief act passed now. Consider taking action not only as a Christmas gift to people who really need it, but as an act of faith.
Part of what Mary calls us to join her in doing is to magnify the Lord. The Greek word literally means to enlarge or amplify, so what might it mean for you as an ordinary everyday follower of Jesus to amplify his message? How might you turn up the volume a bit this week and act from a sense of costly love?
I wonder whether any of us sometimes get caught up in a current or in an eddy tainted with the bitterness of Ebenezer Scrooge and if we need a brief visit from a spirit who shows us what the world would be like if we learned to open our hearts to one another and truly act from love and abundance. Maybe that spirit isn’t a ghost imagined by Charles Dickens. Perhaps it is the spirit of Mary, calling to us across the millennia to amplify God’s liberating realm and to rejoice in God’s presence.
It has been a difficult year with the pandemic, the fires in our foothills, and political discord. And for some of us, it’s been even harder as we struggle to make ends meet and keep a roof over our heads or to find someplace warm and safe to sleep at night. And in the years ahead, this congregation will have a role to play in influencing the moral issues that we as a wider community face.
Our celebration of Christmas will be different in this pandemic year. We may not be surrounded by extended family. We won’t be gathering in this sanctuary together. But we can still unite our hearts and hands and voices and sing Mary’s radical refrain. We can still worship together remotely and safely. We can look forward with hope at getting the pandemic under control. We can know that even if we are in solitude, that we are never alone. Christmas will be different, but my hope for you is that you find new meanings in God’s unique entry onto the scene of human history and that you will become part of the story.
I leave you with the word of a great 20th century theologian, Karl Rahner: “Christmas tells you in your solitude: Trust your surroundings, they are not emptiness; Let go and you will find; Renounce and you will be rich.
May it be so. Amen.
© 2020 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.