“Becoming Beloved Community”
Isaiah 9.1-4 and 1 Corinthians 1.10-18
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning, Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
January 22, 2023
What brings you here today? What brings you to worship this morning in our pews or in our virtual balcony? Take a moment to see how you might answer that question. There isn’t a right or wrong answer.
Perhaps you are here because it’s a habit (a good one, I might add). It’s something you’ve always done and will continue to do. Maybe you are hoping for some insight that will help you through the coming week. It could be that you are here because you are in need of prayer and healing and wholeness. I would imagine that some of us are here to help, whether you are a deacon or you want to pray for others or want to provide a warm welcome for our visitors and members. Maybe some of you are here today because you want to be part of an intergenerational community. Others might be here because they are committed to following Jesus and bringing about God’s realm here and now and still unfolding.
In 2020 and 2021, our Strategic Planning Team came up with this purpose for our plan:
Plymouth’s purpose for the next three to five years is to embody beloved community with God, each other, and our neighbors. We will enhance our communications and deepen engagement within the church. We will be a visible force for social, racial, and environmental justice. This focus will help Plymouth’s already vibrant community look to the future and grow in numbers and in spirit.
“Embody Beloved Community.” Those are words that are rich with meaning. We embody it, not just with our minds or prayers or ideas. We enflesh the concept with our bodies and our selves. So, what does Beloved Community mean?
The term was coined about 125 years ago by Josiah Royce, an American philosopher who wrote, “My life means nothing, either theoretically or practically, unless I am a member of a community.” Royce observed that, besides the actual communities we experience on a daily basis, there was also an ideal “beloved community” made up of all those who would be dedicated fully to the cause of loyalty, truth, and reality itself. Royce founded the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a movement that was later joined by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. [from rejoicingspirits.org]
The kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed — where the first shall be last and the last shall be first, where we create new community based on following God and not Caesar or family or tribe or clan, where the poor are blessed and those who mourn are comforted — that is at the heart of Beloved Community. We should never forget that Dr. King was a theologian and a preacher as well as the leader of the Civil Rights struggle. Part of his prophetic word involves creating Beloved Community that is grounded in the idea of reconciliation.
I love big ideas like Beloved Community. But they need to be brought down to earth to be useful. Where does the rubber meet the road? Where do lofty concepts get put into the practice of everyday life? That is where things get interesting, because the interaction of human beings in community, especially when we attempt to form Beloved Community, encounter stress, difference of opinion, self-interest, tribalism (which may take the form of a generation or a particular perspective).
We can tell from Paul’s writing that the church in Corinth was struggling to keep Beloved Community cohesive. We hear from Chloe’s people that the unity of the Christian community was at risk. Some who were baptized were devoted to the person who baptized them (Cephas/Peter or Apollos or Paul himself), rather than to Christ. Even in the earliest generations as the church emerged from Judaism, there was dissention and disagreement, and Paul says they must be drawn back to the same mind and purpose.
That is a tall order for any church, because we human beings comprise the church, not saints who have reached the pinnacle of human perfection. Scripture says we’re a little lower than angels, but it fails define how much lower. It’s more like a group of people who start out with fine intentions who get a little squirrely along the way, just like Peter and Paul and Apollos. None of us is a Christ figure, but we are trying in the company of one another to live in the most Christlike ways we can. Does that mean we get it right? Sometimes. Often not. Do we put our personal comfort before our faith? I suspect we do. Do we let our egos get in the way of community? Yep. Do we consider our own self-interest before the interest of our sister and brother members? I think so. Do we let our fear of offending or hurting some keep us from speaking the truth in love? Yes, we do. I know that in every instance, I fall short, and I’m imagining that if you look honestly at your interactions with the humans who comprise this congregation, you might, too.
Here is some good news: None of us is called to be perfect. There is no perfect Beloved Community, rather a collection of people doing their best, challenging themselves to live differently, helping others in ways the culture at large won’t, caring for the people who form this community and for God’s world as a whole. I see so many of you providing concrete acts of caring, working for justice, doing behind-the-scenes work that make Beloved Community a possibility that we strive for. Well done. God bless you.
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Together, we have come through a horrific experience of pandemic and dramatic isolation. It has hurt us as individuals who grieve a world that is lost, and as we evolve as a community that has and will continue to be forced into living together differently.
I could never really relate to the Babylonian captivity of Judeans in the sixth century BC until living through the exile of the Covid pandemic. We couldn’t see each other in person, we couldn’t hug, we couldn’t eat together, we couldn’t sing together, we couldn’t work together. We had effectively been exiled from one another. And like the destruction of the Temple, we were deprived of worship in this place, our spiritual home.
It is hard to come out of the fear, the exhaustion, the grief, and the trauma of the pandemic. Together, we have been through a lot. Hear what Isaiah had to say to the exiles, long before their release: “There will be no gloom for those who were in anguish….The people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light and on those who lived in a land of deep darkness, upon them the light has shined.” That is a beautiful vision of the future, but it doesn’t take into account that the exiles had to go through a liminal space, a threshold between what was and what is yet to become. And like a rough landing at DIA, there is always some turbulence in the threshold space between where we are and where we will land.
We are in such a threshold time, my beloved friends. We see glimmers of what is up ahead, but we still feel the weight of what we have come through. Let’s take a moment to acknowledge what we have come through together, and let us ask God to be our seatbelt in times of turbulence. <pause>
How have you been able to connect with your Beloved Community at Plymouth over the past three years? I know that some of our folks are dedicated worshippers in our virtual balcony! Others have opted out of worship, and some have found other communities in which to practice their faith. And we have had some dear ones who have died or moved away. At the same time, a lot of new folks are finding a spiritual home at Plymouth. We are embodying church in very different ways that we did only a few years ago.
And there are more changes on the way in our congregation. In the coming months we are going to have a big shift in our pastoral staff. JT will be finishing up his interim work on February 28 after serving with us for 16 months. I hear appreciation from you about JT’s preaching and his way of being with you, for his work on helping to get our Ministry Match program set up. And I can tell you that his ministry here has meant a lot to me and to members of the staff who have come to love him as a colleague and a friend. Also on February 28, we will be saying farewell and happy retirement to Jane Anne Ferguson who has been our associate minister for the past seven years (and several months as sabbatical interim before that). Jane Anne’s wonderful voice in the pulpit and in Christian Formation will be dearly missed. It is really important for the congregation to celebrate the ministry of these two servants of God who have worked in our midst so effectively, and that will happen in February, so stay tuned. An important part of threshold time is saying goodbye well.
And next Sunday you will hear a new voice from the pulpit! Marta Fioriti is the candidate our Search Committee is putting forward to become our settled associate minister. I’m excited to have you meet her next weekend! I invite you to keep Marta in prayers for this coming weekend. And important part of threshold time is saying hello well.
This big, simultaneous pastoral transition is going to be difficult for many of us. It’s going to be a challenging time for our staff and for me, too. We’re likely to hold the grief of saying goodbye to JT and Jane Anne simultaneously with the excitement of welcoming Marta. It is perfectly okay to feel a mix of emotions. That’s also in the nature of threshold times.
And it’s really important that we remember the message of Chloe’s community: this isn’t JT’s church or Jane Anne’s church or Hal’s church or Marta’s church. It has always been and will continue to be the church of Jesus Christ.
This threshold also presents all of us with the opportunity to hone our Beloved Community skills, sharing with one another in all the ways we can, being open, available, and vulnerable to all those we can, to practice self-giving love with one another, to be generous in spirit both with ourselves and with one another.
Beloved Community isn’t easy. It isn’t automatic. It has very little in common with consumer culture fixed on “me” and “mine.” It takes practice. I’m going to leave you this morning with a quote from Rumi, the Sufi mystic of the 13th century. I think it relates well to the ways we work together to embody Beloved Community. He said, “To find the Beloved, you must become the Beloved.”
May it be so. Amen.
© 2023 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.