The Rev. Hal Chorpenning, Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
10 December 2023
Every year on the second Sunday of Advent, we get a special guest appearance in the Lectionary from John the Baptizer, he who survived by eating locusts and wild honey and wore rough clothing made of camel hair. We tend to think of John as an offbeat character, and that’s probably about right. One of the things I noticed in studying images of John is that he seems so much more human than most of the other subjects. He has the look of world-weariness about him. Perhaps that happens when you find yourself in the wilderness shouting, “Repent! For the Kingdom of God has come near.” In the Gospel According to Matthew, and he adds insult to injury, calling the Sadducees and Pharisees a “brood of vipers,” a nest of poisonous reptilian offspring. Not generally a good way to win friends and influence people.
Most of us probably don’t think of Advent as a penitential season, when we stop and enumerate our sins and make a plan to change course. But on this second Sunday of Advent, that is what John the Baptizer calls us to do. However, that language takes some serious unpacking, because for many of us the language of sin and repentance sounds more televangelist than we’re used to. And what’s more, it has caused injury to people who are not able to believe that God’s goodness lies within them.
Still, it is important for 21st century liberal Christians not to dismiss traditional language out of hand; if we do that, we lose some of the richness and depth of our faith tradition and the wisdom it holds. Instead, we need to re-examine and redefine some of the language.
Let’s start with sin. You may think of sin as wrongdoing, and sometimes it is. For the great 20th century theologian, Paul Tillich, sin is more about estrangement and separation. Adam and Eve become estranged from God, living east of Eden. We are living as exiles, cut off from our true home. And our true home is God.
Marcus Borg writes, “Our estrangement can become hardened by how we live; we indulge our self-centeredness…. Estrangement, the birth of the separated self, is the natural result of growing up; it cannot be avoided. For the same reason, we develop closed hearts, a shell around the self. There is a sense in which we are blinded by the imprinting of culture on our psyches and perception.” It happens to all of us.
Let’s look at an Advent example of someone who has been “hardened by how he lives” and who “indulges in self-centeredness,” but who has a profound change of heart.
[“How the Grinch Stole Christmas” clip.]
Maybe you never thought about John the Baptizer when you watched “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” but it is as if there, on the crest of Mount Crumpet, the Grinch sees his estrangement from the Whos down in Whoville, and his hardened heart breaks open and grow three times its size.
You never heard the word “repent” in the clip, but what you saw was a beautiful example of what repentance really means. “The biblical meaning of ‘repent’ is not primarily contrition, but resolve. In the Hebrew Bible, to repent means primarily to return to God. Its metaphorical home is the exile. To repent means to return from exile, to reconnect with God, to walk the way in the wilderness that leads from Babylon to God.” As the Grinch returns to find community and love and meaning with the Whos down in Whoville, it is a homecoming that I’d imagine makes God smile.
Repent is a scary word, especially because we usually think of it coming from the mouth of a fiery evangelist like Elmer Gantry, and it sure seems holier-than-thou in our context. But in biblical Greek, it’s actually a lovely, beautiful word that has a surplus of meaning. The word metanoia has two roots that connote going beyond the mind you currently have. And I would add that for me it means going beyond the mind and the HEART you currently have. Go beyond the mind and heart that have been shaped by self-interest. Go beyond the mind and heart that have been molded by American consumerism and greed. Go beyond and embrace the heart and mind of Jesus’ compassion and subversive wisdom.
When John the Baptizer offers a “baptism of metanoia,” he is inviting people into the embodied process of transformed lives, going beyond the things that keep them in exile or in bondage. You know what that looks like…it isn’t easy. It certainly wasn’t for Ebenezer Scrooge!
[Clip from “A Christmas Carol.”]
I didn’t show you the visitations of the three spirits, because metanoia can be scary if you really embrace it. But you can use your memory to imagine the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and yet to come. What would those spirits show you from your past, present, and future? Charles Dickens described Scrooge as a “miserable old sinner,” and that isn’t what you saw in Patrick Stewart’s portrayal of the miser after his moment of metanoia.
Scrooge has been separated not just from his family and the Cratchits, he has cut himself off from the whole human family and from God. But it isn’t too late for him, is it? Metanoia is a real possibility for each of us in our alienation and exile.
Perhaps Advent is more preparing the way and tending to the rebirth of the spirit of Christ within each of us and in our church, rather than waiting for the birth of Jesus 2,000 years ago, or for the second coming. Who knows what new life may spring up afresh within any of us? And maybe the people sitting around you will be the midwives who encourage and help you in that rebirth.
Where in your life are you feeling perhaps a bit estranged, cut off, or bound up? Simply acknowledging those pieces of your current mindset is the first step in rebirth or finding your way back home from exile. God is waiting for each of us to accept the invitation to renewal, rebirth, transformation, and wholeness. In our full humanity and our imperfection, God bids us come toward the light of the world and to midwinter metanoia.
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.
 Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity. (SF: HarperSanFrancisco, 2003), p. 168.
 Ibid., p. 180.
Imagining the Words of Joseph
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning
Plymouth Congregational UCC, Fort Collins, Colorado
18 December 2022
That was one of the strangest nights of my life. And it was such a difficult situation. (You think the holidays are stressful for you? Try being engaged to a wonderful, kind young woman who manages to become pregnant without the benefit of a husband…or even a human!) Try explaining that to the neighbors. You know there have been times when I have seen an unmarried woman stoned to death for becoming pregnant. It is not tolerated in our culture.
I was absolutely shocked when I found out that Mary was with child, since she and I had never had sexual relations and I had been sure — well, almost entirely sure — that she had not been with another man. My plan was to send her away to relatives during her pregnancy and to quietly end our engagement. She was the love of my life…what else could I do?
I’m not usually one to remember my dreams, but I do remember this one. The messenger of God appears to me (nothing like this had ever happened before) and he was radiant and spoke with the voice of authority, and said, “Don’t worry what everyone will say. Don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife. The child she carries was conceived by the ruach ha-kodesh, the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son and you will name him Jesus.”
I kept thinking to myself: why Mary? And why me?
You wouldn’t believe what both Mary and I endured during the pregnancy…the whispers, the gossip, the righteous people who gave us the cold shoulder, many family members turned their backs on us. Two things kept us going: our deep love for one another and our faith in the Lord and the messages he sent to us through the angels. It wasn’t just Mary who was chosen to bear a son; God knew it would take a compassionate father to love and raise Jesus, and I hope that I’ve done that well.
They had to find someone whose lineage could be traced right back to King David. In my family, we can trace our ancestors not just to David, but all the way back to Abraham. My father was called Jacob and his father was called Matthan, and his father was called Eleazar… back beyond the time of Exile. There are 14 generations from our ancestor Abraham to King David and then another 14 generations from the time of David to the Exile and then another 14 generations from the Exile in Babylon until my son Jesus was born.
Now that years have gone by, one thing puzzles me: I’ve heard that in all of the accounts being written about Jesus, they seldom about me, and while they recount the song that Mary sang about her soul magnifying the Lord and the poor receiving good things, there is not one word from me. I know, I shouldn’t be bothered about it.
But, I have to correct a few things about Jesus. Don’t get me wrong, he is a great son. But when they sing, “the little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes”… that is just plain wrong. The lungs on that child…ear-piercing shrieks when he needed to be changed. And that other song they sing, “All throughout his wondrous childhood, Jesus honored and obeyed.” Sometimes he honored and obeyed, but not all the time. You know about the time when he was a smart-Alec adolescent and he just disappeared. He scared the dickens out of Mary and me. We were up in Jerusalem to celebrate Passover, and we thought he was right there with us and our other children when we were headed home with all the others. One minute he’s with us and the next, he had vanished into the crowd. “Honored and obeyed,” as if! We were terrified, and then when we searched the crowd and didn’t find him, we headed back to Jerusalem, and there he was in the Temple Courts with the elders, asking questions and acting as if he knew it all. I’ll tell you, we were not only angry with him, but also astonished. He was holding his own.
Not bad for someone who worked with his father as a carpenter. He wasn’t a big kid, and sometimes he needed a little help hefting the larger logs that we sawed into boards, but he was great with his hands. Nothing rough-hewn about his woodworking…it was all well designed and put together. He had a real knack for carpentry. In some ways I wish he had stuck with it. His life would have been so much simpler.
He always admired his cousin, John, who frankly was a little “off-beat.” John had visions of being a spiritual teacher, which is fine. But instead of staying at home and becoming a rabbi, he set off into the wilderness, out toward the Jordan. It isn’t the most hospitable territory, and I heard that he subsisted on anything he could find out in the desert. Of course, there was no manna out there…just insects like grasshoppers and locusts and some wild honey, if you are lucky enough to find a bee’s nest. And John didn’t care what he looked like. He dressed in a rough cloak of camel hair that he had woven himself on a little hand loom. It still smelled of camel. Out there he was proclaiming that by being immersed in the River Jordan, people who truly changed their ways would be forgiven by the Holy One. And he had a following, to be sure. So many people trekked out to the Jordan to hear him and to be washed in the Jordan.
Jesus went out there also, and I told him to be cautious about his cousin, who… I didn’t want to say it, but … who is a little crazy. John baptized Jesus and then he said that John himself was not the one sent by the Lord, but that he was not worthy to tie the leather thong of the sandal on the one whom God had sent: his cousin, Jesus.
Jesus himself went into the desert wilderness for a full 30 days as if to test himself, to be sure that he was worthy of preaching about the realm of God, a world just as the Lord himself had intended us to live. No poverty. No hunger or thirst. No injustice or oppression. No empires to steal land and lives from those they invade. Instead, a world of healing the ill, restoring sight to the blind and hearing to those who were deaf. A world where peace and compassion and wholeness were the order of the day, instead of selfishness, greed, oppression, and ignorance.
I taught Jesus a lot about how to use a plane, a saw, and a hammer, but I couldn’t have taught him about God’s kingdom. That came from a different parent. So, that is where he is today, walking from place to place around the Galilee, proclaiming a new way of living in closer relationship to the Holy One. I know that he has made some of the religious authorities angry, because he sometimes says things that upset the Romans and even challenges some of the ritual observances that are central to our faith.
One thing that his mother and I did instill in him from the day of his birth right through to today: it’s all about love. We look around and we see the love of God everywhere: in the beautiful array of stars in the night sky, in the kindness of a parent, in the hospitality of an innkeeper, in simple bread and wine, in the births of children. And Jesus pushes the love of God even further. In fact, once I heard him say, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” An amazing boy.
How about you? What do you think life is all about? What is most important to you? What brings light into the world? What brings hope and peace and joy? If you listen to my boy, I know you will think that it it’s all about love.
I’ve thought a lot about its amazing power. That love is patient. Love is kind. Love is not arrogant or boastful or rude. It isn’t happy with injustice, but it is happy in the truth. Love trusts all things, hopes all things, and endures all things. Love never ends.
Maybe somebody should write that down and quote me for a change.
I bid you shalom!
Organizing Around Joy
Isaiah 35.1,3-10 and Matthew 11.1-6
December 11, 2022; Third Sunday in Advent
Plymouth Congregational, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
1The desert and the dry land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom like the crocus. … 3Strengthen the weak hands, and support the unsteady knees. 4Say to those who are panicking: "Be strong! Don't fear! Here's your God, coming with [requital, recompence, redemption]; with divine [justice and restoration] God will come to save you." 5Then the eyes of the blind will be opened, and the ears of the deaf will be cleared. 6Then the lame will leap like the deer, and the tongue of the speechless will sing. Waters will spring up in the desert, and streams in the wilderness. 7The burning sand will become a pool, and the thirsty ground, fountains of water. … 8A highway will be there. It will be called The Holy Way. The unclean won't travel on it, but it will be for those walking on that way. Even fools won't get lost on it; 9no lion will be there, and no predator will go up on it. None of these will be there; only the redeemed will walk on it. 10The LORD's ransomed ones will return and enter Zion with singing, with everlasting joy upon their heads. Happiness and joy will overwhelm them; grief and groaning will flee away. - Bible, Common English. CEB Common English Bible with Apocrypha - eBook [ePub] (Kindle Locations 27681-27706).
1When Jesus finished teaching his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in their cities. 2Now when John heard in prison about the things the Christ, [the Messiah, the Human One] was doing, he sent word by his disciples to Jesus, asking, 3"Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?" 4Jesus responded, "Go, report to John what you hear and see. 5Those who were blind are able to see. Those who were crippled are walking. People with skin diseases are cleansed. Those who were deaf now hear. Those who were dead are raised up. The poor have good news proclaimed to them. 6 Happy are those who don't stumble and fall because of me." - Bible, Common English. CEB Common English Bible with Apocrypha - eBook [ePub] (Kindle Locations 38242-38249).
In the ancient traditions of Advent today is “Gaudete Sunday.” Gaudete, the Latin word meaning “Rejoice!” This is the Sunday of rejoicing! Rejoicing even when we see so many shadows of sadness and grief in our world. We light the candle of Joy in the face of sadness and grief. Not because we are denying the sadness and grief, but because we know a bigger story. We know this story because of the testimonies of our ancestors in faith, like the prophet, Isaiah, because of the life and love of our pioneer and perfecter of faith, Jesus of Nazareth.
Isaiah and Jesus knew the bigger, resilient story of the Holy ONE’s presence and work in the world. With his people Isaiah was facing a world going up in flames as the Babylonians attacked and conquered neighboring countries, threatened Israel, eventually conquering it as well. The chapter preceding the joyful one we just heard together is dire, full of doom. It reminds me what we hear from climate change activists. Dire and immediate warnings…. and necessarily so! May we listen and act accordingly! It reminds me of what we hear and see from Ukraine and other war-ravaged nations in our world community. The devastations that we human beings wreak upon one another. May we listen and respond compassion! I am also reminded of the first stanza of the poem that is the centerpiece of our Advent devotional for this third week. It is Maya Angelou’s poem, “Just Like Job.”
My Lord, my Lord,
Long have I cried out to Thee
In the heat of the sun,
The cool of the moon,
My screams searched the heavens for Thee.
When my blanket was nothing but dew,
Rags and bones
Were all I owned,
I chanted Your name
Just like Job.[i]
In the face of all this grief and sadness and destruction, hearing and living the promises of God from the prophet in Isaiah is a stronghold and refuge. “Be strong! Don't fear! Here's your God, coming with [requital, recompense, and redemption]…” Healing will happen, the blind will see, the lame walk, the earth will be healed with streams of living water and the desert will bloom! There is a highway called the Holy Way to walk towards healing, a way to walk in healing. Even fools will see the way! Happiness and joy will overwhelm; grief and groaning will flee away.”
We also take heart from Jesus’ words in Matthew chapter 11, echoing the ancient prophets, Isaiah and Malachi. John the Baptizer sends him a probing question from the depths for a prison cell. “Are you really the One sent from God? “Jesus says to John’s disciples who are the messengers of the question, “Go, report to John what you hear and see.” (Notice, not who you think I am or might be, but what do you see happening in the world!) “Those who were blind are able to see. Those who were crippled are walking. People with skin diseases are cleansed. Those who were deaf now hear. Those who were dead are raised up. The poor have good news proclaimed to them.” Trust what you see and hear. Happy are those, says Jesus, who do not stumble because they second guess what they are seeing and hearing. They trust.
Jesus reminds John that dire times have been upon God’s people before, yet God brings a resilient cycle of redemption and renewal. God’s kin-dom is now and in coming and will continue to come! There is joy even in the midst of dire times. Look for it! Recognize it! Rejoice! God’s work in the world is full of joy and it is resilient. The Merriam Webster dictionary tells us that resilience is: “The ability to become strong, healthy, or successful again after something bad happens. The ability of something to return to its original shape after it has been pulled, stretched, bent, etc. An ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change.” Justice activist, Corina Fadel speaks about resilience like this: “The way water knows just how to flow, not force itself around a river rock; then surely I can stretch myself in the shape my own path is asking of me.”[ii]
These reflections on resilience spark in me in a quiet, confident joy as I consider them with the words of Isaiah and Jesus. When bad things happen, when life goes awry, when we are faced with sadness and grief, we push back and say, “No!” “No, life! You are not doing this to me! How can I escape? How can I make this go away? I must resist!” We hurt. We are angry! Normal reactions to abnormal situations. We can, we must, acknowledge the sadness and grief before we can move further. And in the pain, the Holy invites us to sit listening for God. Waiting is not easy. But neither is resisting and refusing to listen. We wait for God, as we are waiting in this dark time of year for longer days to return. I have found that in the waiting and listening something new begins to happen, something news comes slowly, but surely. Living water bubbles up from the dry places of my soul. I learn to see again, to walk again in confidence with God. To find that highway in the desert that even fools cannot miss. And my heart can begin again to organize itself around joy.
The pain might still be there…. but it is now living alongside new life, new growth. When we stay in resistance to the pain, I am stuck in a soul-sucking quagmire. When we stop struggling against it, feel it, acknowledge it, listen quietly to it and to Spirit, then we can see and hear that the desert blooms again, there is new life even in the face of death and joy comes in the morning. Our soul can flow in and around the pain like water over river rocks. We can stretch ourselves with God’s love and compassion into the shape that our paths are asking us to take. Joy comes. Not an easy happiness that depends on circumstances, but joy that runs deep at a soul level.
Maya Angelou knows this cycle of resilience. Quoting her poem again, “Just Like Job,” she sings with the psalmists of old,
O Lord, come to Your child.
O Lord, forget me not.
You said to lean on Your arm...
The wonderful word of the Son of God. [iii]
Joy co-exists with sorrow, writes the late priest, teacher and soul-work author, Henri Nouwen, “because it is the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing - sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death — can take that love away.” [iv] That can be a tough to trust, can’t it? The world does not often run on unconditional anything, much less love. Everything has a price, doesn’t it?
Yet this is the miracle love of Christmas. God’s unconditional love comes in the baby, the Christ Child, God-with-us in the flesh in the world. God’s love is vulnerable. It invites our love. It grows into the powerful message and model of Jesus who lived God’s love even unto death and beyond.
On the path of Advent, we wait and listen in these darkened times. We wait for the time when we celebrate once again the resilience of God’s love made human. We wait for the light to break through in Hope, Peace and now, today, in joy. Joy, that deep well-spring of Love that fuels the realm of God on earth. Joy that comes in the face of, co-exists with, sadness, pain, and grief. Joy is what we can organize our hearts and minds and lives around as we make our way in the world walking Holy highways of justice-seeking, of kindness, of compassion to make God’s realm visible wherever we might be.
With Maya Angelou, let us cry out to the Holy One, saying,
….I’m stepping out on Your word.
I’m stepping out on Your word.
Into the alleys
Into the byways
Into the streets [poem here]
Friends of God gathered here this morning … let us step out on God’s word this day, Joy!
©The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, 2022 and beyond. May be reprinted only with permission.
[i] Maya Angelou, The Complete Poetry, (Random House, New York NY: 2015, 168.) Read poem here.
[ii] adrienne maree brown, Emergent Strategy, Shaping Change, Changing Worlds, (AK Press: Chico, CA, 2017, 123.)
[iii] Angelou, 168-169.
[v] Angelou, 169.
An Advent sermon related to Isaiah 11:1-9 and Dalai Lama quote on peace
To uplift the unexpected possibility/emergence of peace
and to connect it with the realization of justice.
Isaiah 11:1-9 (The Inclusive Bible)
Then a shoot will sprout from the stump of Jesse;
From Jesse’s roots, a branch will blossom.
2 The spirit of YHWH will rest on you,
a spirit of wisdom and understanding,
a spirit of counsel and strength,
a spirit of knowledge and reverence for YHWH.
3 You will delight in obeying YHWH,
And you won’t judge by appearances,
or make decisions by hearsay.
4 You will treat poor people with fairness
and will uphold the rights of the land’s downtrodden;
With a single word you will strike down tyrants,
With your decrees you will execute evil people.
5 Justice will be the belt around this your waist
faithfulness will gird you up.
6 Then the wolf will dwell with the lamb;
And the leopard will lie down with the young goat;
the calf and the lion cub will graze together,
and a little child will lead them.
7 The cow will feed with the bear;
their young will lie down together;
The lion will eat hay like the ox.
8 The baby will play next to the den of the cobra,
and the toddler will dance over the viper’s nest.
9 There will be no harm, no destruction anywhere
in my holy mountain,
for as the water fills the sea,
so the land will be filled with the knowledge of YHWH.
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.
In January of 1915, in Great Britain, the Wellington Journal & Shrewsbury News published a letter of a British military officer. Captain Robert Patrick Miles wrote home on Christmas Day from the Great War’s trenches, the front lines of World War I. He wrote:
We are having the most extraordinary Christmas Day imaginable. A sort of unarranged and quite unauthorized but perfectly understood and scrupulously observed truce exists between us and our friends in front. … The thing started last night – a bitter cold night, with white frost – soon after dusk when the Germans started shouting 'Merry Christmas, Englishmen' to us. Of course, our fellows shouted back and presently large numbers of both sides had left their trenches, unarmed, and met in the debatable, shot-riddled, no man's land between the lines. Here the agreement – all on their own – came to be made that we should not fire at each other until after midnight tonight. The men were all fraternizing in the middle … and swapped cigarettes and lies in the utmost good fellowship. Not a shot was fired all night.
The letter was published posthumously.
Captain Miles was killed 5 days after he wrote this letter on December 30, 2014.
Unexpected peace broke out that Christmas during the First World War.
The tragic fact that it did not last is, of course, reason for deep disappointment, sadness, and grief. Yet, the fact that this unexpected peace occurred is soul food for our imaginations. It is manna in the wilderness of violence and violent expectations. The story’s unexpectedness, the fact that we call it that, unexpected, points to the expectation of a lack of peace in our collective imaginations and even the cynicism that can make a home in our hearts, especially in the light of mass shootings like Club Q in Colorado Springs, King Soopers in Boulder, others around the country, and in light of the Jan. 6th insurrection at the Capitol building.
Yet, the prophetic voice we hear in the passage from Isaiah this morning has no such limitation of imagination and expectation. Isaiah’s prophetic poetic imagination offers a vision, a hope, even an expectation for his people who stand in their time also amidst the darkness of deportations and war. Even in such a time, the prophet Isaiah offers a vision of peace that comes about by justice. In this case, justice brought by an ideal sovereign whose connection to God imbues humility, wisdom, compassion, and a sense of equity. Amidst these qualities, there is a reconciliation in the land so profound that even the lion shall lay down with the lamb.
In the story I shared, the War to End All Wars resumed and Captain Miles was killed because, of course, nothing changed in the systems in which these humans lived. No policies or orders were changed, no heartfelt connection and conversation was had by the warring nations’ leaders. They would not make room in their imaginations for another vision. These leaders, and many of their citizens, were prisoners of their limited sense of self and of the other, captives of their nationalistic, competitive worldview and its expectations.
As a Peace with Justice church nationally and here locally at Plymouth United Church of Christ, we uplift an understanding that what makes for peace are conditions of justice.
The Dalai Lama said it this way:
Peace, in the sense of the absence of war, is of little value to someone who is dying of hunger or cold. It will not remove the pain of torture inflicted on a prisoner of conscience. It does not comfort those who have lost their loved ones in floods caused by senseless deforestation in a neighboring country. Peace can only last where human rights are respected, where the people are fed, and where individuals and nations are free.
Indeed, what makes for justice are peaceful actions of justice-making by peace-filled nonviolent people like Rosa Parks, Dolores Huerta, Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez, and like First Nation youth and elders at the Standing Rock Reservation a few years ago. And many unnamed others. All of these people made room for a dream of peace based in justice, made room in their imaginations in such a way as it led them into actions for that vision of Just Peace.
This also can be the case in our personal lives where our conscious imaginations fail us and we set expectations, often unconscious, based on our internalized family systems that demean or inflate ourselves and/or the other, that make no room for a new vision of what might be possible, of making a way to inner peace and healing, unexpected though it might be. In that world of habitual confinement and conflict, there is no room for imagining reconciliation of lion and lamb, no room for the advent of a light of peace amidst that darkness. The status quo expectations of our internalized family system and the status quo expectations of culture and history can and often do keep us captive.
Is it too much for us to make room for a story like the Christmas truce of 1914, to make room for something unexpected, something beyond our usual expectations of age or situation or personal or historical habit?
Is Isaiah an unrealistic dreamer with all his lion and lamb talk?
Are such stories and visions all just wishy-washy, touchy feely, cotton candy Christmas talk?
Dr. King and others didn’t think so.
Their communities of faith trusted Isaiah’s prophetic vision of an unexpected peace, let it embolden their prophetic imagination. Then they directed their hopes and charted their actions toward that unexpected vision of a just peace, even as they waited for it amidst the darkness of injustice.
“You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.”
When John Lennon penned his lyric for Imagine and said he imagined no religion, no possessions, no heaven and hell, he was naming the toxic forms of religion and possession that limit us, divide us, and lead us to injustice and violence. Indeed, we are better off without them. He was encouraging us, from the darkness of our limited cultural expectations, to imagine differently, to make room for an unexpected vision of how there could be peace.
As we now come together at the Banquet table of God, let us faithfully imagine differently, like Isaiah, and make room for an unexpected coming of peace. AMEN.
“What Are You Waiting for?”
Jeremiah 33.14-16 & Luke 21.25-36
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning, Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
27 November 2022 (Advent I)
You have not heard me preach a lot about the Second Coming or the end times, because neither is a particularly large part of our theology. But that was not true for many of our earliest forebears in the faith, who thought it was coming right around the corner.
The earliest followers of the Way of Jesus, most of whom worshiped with Jewish communities, had some sense of apocalyptic literature from The Book of Daniel (where we hear that mysterious moniker, “The Son of Man”) and from sections of the major prophets like Jeremiah and Isaiah. And the words from Luke’s Gospel, likely written at the end of the first century, 50 or 60 years after Jesus’ crucifixion, point toward the Second Coming.
Jesus’ followers soon realized that his execution was not God’s final word, that there had to be a next chapter unfolding with the empty tomb and post-resurrection experiences. Jesus had come proclaiming the kingdom of God: a new world in which life would be organized the way God intended, rather than the way normal path of civilization and the resulting Empire ruled things.
Many Jews in the first century anticipated the coming of the Messiah as a military leader who would restore Jewish home rule in the homeland and eject the occupying Romans. They didn’t get the Messiah they were expecting, instead they got a subversive sage who proclaimed an alternative to the violence, greed, and injustice that were normal in that civilization. I wish I could go back and sing a few lines of the Stones’ song to them: “You can’t always get what you want…You can’t always get what you want…But if you try sometimes, you just might find…You get what you need.” They wanted a generalissimo and instead they got nonviolent Jesus, which is actually what the world needed.
Luke quotes Jesus as saying, “There will be great earthquakes and wide-scale food shortages and epidemics. There will also be terrifying sights and great signs in the sky.” Doesn’t that sound a bit like what is happening today? We know all about epidemics! And climate change is upon us. We have distressed the earth and it is resulting in rising sea levels and all kinds of chaos that it is difficult to foresee.
Wouldn’t it be great if God would just do a big clean-up and let us start over in a world where we cared for Creation and for each other? That’s the underlying message of the tale of Noah and the great flood, and I’m not so sure how great that would be for us. Or God could send Jesus back for “The Kingdom of God, Part Two” (for those who didn’t get it the first time). That is what Luke describes when he writes, “When you see these things taking place, you know the Kingdom of God is near.” For first-century Jews, religious and national crisis was writ large by the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD by the army of Rome.
There was expectation among Jesus’ earliest followers that something radical was going to happen to clean up the injustice of Empire.
Christians have waited for more than 2,000 years for the Second Coming. Was it just that the timing was off when Luke writes, “this generation won’t pass away until everything has happened?” Maybe. Advent is all about waiting, but, my friends, 2,000 is a very long wait.
I don’t think their timing was off. But I think they missed something that Jesus said while he was still teaching and preaching in the Galilee. It’s a radical little nugget of truth that is so volatile (kind of like, say, a mustard seed) that it isn’t even included in the Revised Common Lectionary.
I don’t think the early Christians’ timing was poor. I think that some of their eyes were closed, and their ears stopped up. They missed it! The Kingdom was right there in front of them all along. Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, they could have gone home to the Kingdom of God anytime they wished, and they didn’t even have to click the heels of their ruby slippers. They just had to live into it, even under the boot of Roman oppression.
Here is what they missed, which we find earlier in Luke’s gospel. “Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed [like earthquakes, epidemics, or changes in the sky]; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.”
The Kingdom of God is among you. Have Christians been waiting for something that has been available to them for 2,000 years? We have been shown the wisdom and the way to live out the kingdom or kin-dom or realm of God. We’ve had this knowledge for two millennia, so why are we not willing to live into it? What do you think: why haven’t Christians, why haven’t WE, lived into the Kingdom of God and created the Beloved Community? I think I know at least one answer. Being a part of God’s Kingdom is costly. It requires self-giving love. It requires putting the needs of the community above the needs of the self. And as Jesus shows time and again, it can even mean putting the needs of the new family in Christ ahead of the needs of one’s biological family.
Advent is a season of waiting, of longing for a world that is closer to what the God of justice and peace intends for us and for all of creation.
The earliest Christians were waiting the Second Coming, yet that may not be a big part of your faith journey. Isn’t it time we paid more attention to the “First Coming,” rather than waiting around for the Second? For a few thousand years, emperors and bishops, priests, and pastors have often considered the message of Jesus too hot to handle. If Jesus is Lord, doesn’t that imply that Caesar is not? If we pledge allegiance to the Kingdom of God, where does that leave our patriotism? If we live out self-giving love, where does that leave the market economy on Black Friday and Cyber Monday?
In 313, Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, legalizing Christianity. A short 12 years later, in 325, he called the Council of Nicaea to institutionalize and unify the doctrine of the church, and the creed that emerged from that council says only this about the life and teachings of Jesus: He “became incarnate and became man, and suffered, and rose again on the third day.” There is no mention of the kingdom of God. No reference to the Beatitudes or to what Jesus did. Nothing about the message of parables. Nothing about love. The church, which had been counter-cultural, became the establishment instead of becoming a movement. That is what happens when Empire melds with and supersedes religion. And it fuels Christian Nationalism in our country today.
So, what are we waiting for? The Second Coming? The Rapture? I suspect that none of you are waiting for those things to happen. Are we waiting for somebody else to “do” faith for us? Do we wait for “somebody else” to step up and step in when we share ministry and mission in this place? We are the movement!
The Kingdom of is among us, here and now and still unfolding! Even though we may never see the reign of God in its fullness, I deeply appreciate the way our congregation acts for justice, peace, and inclusion and engages in acts of compassion with one another. That gives me tremendous hope. At Plymouth, we do our best (however imperfectly) to keep Jesus at the forefront, rather than Caesar or doctrine, dogma, or ancient creed. In the final analysis, love wins. During this Advent season, may each of us deepen our journey as followers of Jesus. And may every heart prepare him room. Amen.
© 2022 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact email@example.com for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
 Luke 17.20
Rev. J.T. Smiedemdorf
Plymouth Congregational Church
Fort Collins, CO
An Advent sermon related to Luke 3:7-18
John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 9 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
10 And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” 11 In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13 He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
Our tradition puts us in a strange predicament this morning.
While the darkness grows deeper in our hemisphere as the season of Advent lengthens, and while the prophet join exclaims “You brood of vipers,” we are asked to light the Advent candle of joy. Now joy makes sense if I am excitedly and confidently drawing near to the light and the delights of Christmas Day. As a kid that was certainly the case, waiting for special once a year smells, songs, presents, and treats to eat.
But our story brings us not to such delights, but to John the Baptizer.
What do we do with John on this Advent Sunday of joy? John: the Wildman in the wilderness. Rough clothing, rough diet, rough speech: You brood of vipers! And….. the wrath that is to come! Maybe John is like that crazy uncle on Thanksgiving that you have to invite because he is family. Disruptive to domestic peace and pleasant conversation, but there he is right in the middle of the story.
What can John say to us today? What could John possibly say to us about joy as we journey toward the manger?
The history of Advent might help us get started on this riddle.
As early as the fifth century, Christians prepared for Christmas with a 40-day fast. Advent was a season of penitence, self-examination, and repentance. Now in the earliest years of the church, the only church season was Lent, itself a season of fasting and prayer and the traditional color was a deep purple, signifying repentance and suffering. Lent was a solemn season due to the impending crucifixion of Jesus. Yet there was always a twinge of hope and joy in the Easter story. So, on the third Sunday of Lent, the Christians broke their fast and had a feast to signify this hope and joy amid the sadness. Pink became the symbol of this day; priests began to wear pink vestments as a reminder of the coming joy of the resurrection.
The third Advent candle, color pink, was selected to be a reminder of this ancient practice of Lent. Advent is a kind of mini-Lent.
If there is any war on Christmas, it is a subtle but significant initiative to limit and alter the ‘holy-day’ to focus on family nostalgia and domestic pleasantries, to cultural quirks and consumer crescendos. This focus drains the gravitas out of the story. Those cultural expressions are fine as far as they go, but they won’t go far enough to get us to a meaningful or vital or resilient faith. Indeed, the true meaning and power of Christmas is difficult to access with this limited focus and also from the place of guaranteed comfort and privilege.
And so is true joy. It also is difficult to access from comfort and privilege, from naïve notions of joy and desires for pleasantness.
Paula Cooey, Professor of Religion at Trinity University in San Antonio says,
“… joy is more complex than most theories of feeling allow. For example, for ethically mature adults, if not for everyone, joy cannot be experienced innocently. It is experienced instead against the backdrop of the knowledge of the suffering and violence that characterize much of human life. Thus, while one can imagine, …. what it might mean to experience sustained pain in the absence of joy, it is almost impossible to imagine experiencing joy while ignorant of the coexistence of suffering. Tragedy and joy coexist.”
This is where the prophets come in. It is Hebrew Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann who reminds us that the prophetic imagination is about an alternative consciousness, an alternative narrative to the one of the Empire whether that empire be Roman, British, Russian, or American. That story is about the freedom of God, the inbreaking innovation, the new birth and life lived anew.
The prophetic imagination is about a faith in the new life that is needed to overcome forces of death, the forces that are draining life. For John, the new life is about dying to the old ways that do not serve life and being born into a new one. Baptism is that passage and metanoia, turning around our lives, is its purpose. We see this in John’s response to those who said what must we do. He tells them to live differently, honestly, in good and just relationship to others.
Father Richard Rohr calls this baptismal way a spirituality of descent.
And that kind of descent cannot occur if our joy is facile or naïve, merely pleasantry and happiness in moments of good fortune or insulated comfort. Like labor pains of birth, and the descent and death of going under the water in baptism, the prophet knows that hard truth has to come. The forces of death, our unjust and life draining ways, must be seen and named. Even a prophet as eloquent as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King spoke of the fierce urgency of now. There are moments of fierceness and urgency. There are times when it is time to face a difficult reality in ourselves, in our nation, and in our world. The prophet names and confronts the hard truths that need God’s transformation.
Such a moment came at the Standing Rock Reservation in 2016 where bands of the Lakota and Dakota peoples live. After quietly rejecting an oil pipeline proposal that would have sent the pipeline under the Missouri River upstream of the mostly white city of Bismarck, the Dakota Access Pipeline was approved to go further south, crossing the waters upstream of the Standing Rock Reservation. In 2016, youth of these nations began a nonviolent effort to stop the construction of the pipeline, even using their bodies as necessary. Not unlike John the Baptizer, they proclaimed the fierce urgency of now and, like John, organized a prayer meeting around the waters.
My wife and I went there at the end of October 2016 to help in any way we could. We prayed. We trained in nonviolent resistance. We bore witness to the courage of those standing up to the empire and supported them as best we could. I had never been to a war zone, but this time of being present in the camp and on the front lines showed me the incredible and heartbreaking truth of the funding, weaponry, equipment, and intimidation that the system of empire can bring to bear on those who attempt to interfere with its purpose.
A joy based on Christmas decorations and carols on the radio is not enough to meet with hard truths; the complex reality of life or the power of empire. Enter the prophets like John. Such hard truth prophets like John the Baptizer, Malcom X, Angela Davis, and Dolores Huerta are not always received well. But they are necessary in our Advent story and for the coming of the new birth.
And, yet, these hard truth prophets are not without joy. Their joy is of knowing, feeling, and acting for the alternative vision of God. Even in the face of empire, even in the growing darkness, they let that deep and complex joy, what theologian Cornel West would call subversive joy, fuel their service and their lives. The result is the sweet fruit of living differently. “Bear fruit worthy of repentance,” John said.
Let me be clear. At my house, we will be decorating a Christmas tree and gathering family. We will listen to the soundtrack of Charlie Brown Christmas and watch some annual holiday Christmas movies. I will be baking a cherished family cookie recipe. I am not against these things. I enjoy these things and I hope you do too in your own way.
I am simply reminding all of us that these things are not the Christmas story of our faith. The journey to the manger includes the wild prophets of the wilderness, calling us out to the river, to be immersed in hard truths, and then rise anew into lives bearing the sweet fruit of God’s inbreaking Realm. Even amidst a growing darkness there is a pink candle of joy to light and a new birth of life to wait upon.
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
“O for a world preparing for God’s glorious reign of peace, where time and tears will be no more, and all but love will cease.” That is a beautiful vision from a hymn we often sing at Plymouth. It was written by Miriam Therese Winter, a Catholic sister and professor emerita at Hartford Seminary. Even though it isn’t an Advent hymn, per se, it speaks to the proclamation of John the Baptizer, which you heard a moment ago. Quoting Isaiah, we hear that a voice is crying out in the wilderness, as if to say, “O for a world where every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill made low. O for a world where the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways smooth.” Isaiah was writing of preparing for a better world. The people of Israel were in exile in Babylon, but exile isn’t just a historical concept…it is still with us. Where have YOU felt as if we have been living in exile?
O for a world where racial prejudice is not ingrained in our national identity. O for a world where the nations of the world come together to address climate change. O for a world where national unity supersedes faction. O for a world where everyone has a home. O for a world where the pandemic is a footnote of history.
Covid has meant exile for many of us. Last week I was talking with my friend, Radwan Kalaaji, and remembering that before the pandemic struck, we had plans for him to prepare a Syrian meal for our Dinner Church, but those plans were dashed by Covid. He told me about his own bout with the virus and being hospitalized. Our conversation made me realize fully some of the things I miss most as we as a congregation continue to live in exile: dinner church — worshipping and eating together; potlucks — the third sacrament in the UCC (just behind baptism and communion); seeing all our members face-to-face, hearing the voices of kids running around the church; personal connection and hugs. I grieve the loss of these aspects of our life together. O for a world where are delivered from exile and we can reconnect fully as a church.
Last week in her sermon, Jane Anne posed a question about where we find hope and whether some signs of hope are internal to our experience, rather than outside us. And I spent a good, long while thinking about that. I’m still working on the internal dimension of hope, but I feel hopeful when we welcome wonderful new members into our family of faith, when time and again, I see the generosity of our congregation, when I see youth sleeping on our front lawn to raise funds and awareness about homelessness, and when I receive words of encouragement from members about what Plymouth means to them and about my cancer journey.
In the church office, we have a large piece of calligraphy by the Vietnamese Buddhist sage, Thich Nhat Hanh given to us by Jane Ellen Combelic, one of our members who now lives in Scotland. It says, “There is no way to peace; peace is the way.”
How do we prepare the way? We can start with ourselves.
Even as we long for a world where “time and tears will be no more and all but love will cease,” we can practice living into it. We can practice peace in our own lives, with our families, with our colleagues, with our kids, with our teachers, with the clerk at King Soopers, with our fellow parishioners, with our spouses, and especially with ourselves. I read something online last week with this suggestion: “In your small circles of influence, choose to be the peace you seek.”
Think about that: in this next week, what are ways that you can do more than simply wish for peace, but to BE the peace you seek? What are two or three very practical ways that you can embody peace this week? Are you willing to commit to do them?
Sometimes I have trouble finding a way to internal peace, to being at peace with myself. I have a very strong self-critical streak and sometimes I really work at trying not to be judgmental with myself for not doing things perfectly, whether it’s our various methods of livestreaming or not losing weight as fast as I’d like or feeling as if I’m not as good a dad and husband as I could be. It’s hard to be at peace when those messages are trying to sabotage us. Do you ever have those self-critical thoughts? As I said in a sermon a few months back, I’m putting perfection on hold for the duration of the pandemic…and maybe forever. Can I get an Amen? None of us is a perfect vessel of God’s love, and we aren’t going to find peace unless we accept ourselves just as God accepts us, warts and all.
Perhaps one of the ways we can “be peace” during this holiday season is to quiet our self-judgement and our judgement of others and instead offer some grace to ourselves and to those around us.
If peace is the way — the way of Jesus, the way of God’s realm, the way of righteousness — we need to get on the path and just do it. Even if every mountain and hill has not yet been made low and every crooked path has not yet been made straight, we can still walk the path of peace. But it needs to start within us and emanate from us.
Here is a short meditation that I learned many years ago from my mentor, Marcus Borg, and which I use to start my prayer time each morning: “Lord Jesus Christ, you are the light of the world, fill my mind with your peace, and my heart with your love.” I’m going to invite us to pray together with that: I’ll offer the words of the prayer and ask you to breathe in as I say, “Lord Jesus Christ,” and breathe out on “you are the light of the world.” Breathe in on “fill my mind with your peace,” and out on “and my heart with your love.” Let’s try that together a couple of times. Put your feet on the floor, sit up as straight as is comfortable, close your eyes, and just breathe. “Lord Jesus Christ, you are the light of the world, fill my mind with your peace, and my heart with your love.”
It’s a great, short prayer that you can offer anytime, especially when you are having one of those moments when you are feeling neither particularly peaceful nor particularly loving!
I want to acknowledge that this is a difficult time of the year for many of us, whether from busyness or in our grief or missing people we cannot see in person. And I want to acknowledge that you may be feeling very weary, exhausted, and depressed with the pandemic. All of those things are normal.
AND we can still take steps toward inner peace, even in contest with such circumstances. Walking the path of peace might even help you feel some hope and light.
“O for a world preparing for God’s glorious reign of peace, where time and tears will be no more, and all but love will cease.” May it be so. Amen.
© 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.
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.