The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
Let’s talk about…Jesus.
Now, you may say to yourself, Hal you talk about Jesus almost every Sunday, and that’s true. But how often do you talk about Jesus with your family, your kids, your friends, even with your friends here at Plymouth? I’m guessing not very often.
When I was younger, it seemed that in my church we talked about “Christ” as a more refined, less emotional kind of a figure. It’s easier to make “Christ” conform to your own norms and standards than it is when you think about “Jesus,” the Galilean peasant who preached regime change to overturn the Empire and the forces of this world in favor of the kingdom of God.
It’s also because of the rise of anti-science, anti-gay, anti-woman evangelicalism in the 20th century that led to the Religious Right. It’s because we don’t want to be associated with the televangelists who talked a lot about Je-ee-sus (with three syllables). That Jesus is perceived by some as having one purpose: to get you into Heaven by being saved through a profession of a personal relationship with him as your personal Lord and savior. That theology invites radical individualism (it’s about me and Jesus) and it is centered in the mistaken perception that Jesus’ reason for being here in the first place was to die a bloody and agonizing death on the cross so that believers receive a get-out-of-jail-free card in the hereafter. If Jesus — that Jesus — doesn’t care a fig about social justice, then it’s all about reaching the pearly gates. I imagine that is the Jesus many insurrectionists in DC were praying to on January 6. Don’t you wonder what they would do with the words of the historical Jesus: “Blessed are you who are poor.” “The kingdom of God is among you.” “The first shall be last, and the last shall be first.” “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God; it would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.” “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
And sometimes we in the mainline churches talk about the Christ of faith as the “post-Easter” Jesus, the one who rose from the dead and is seated at the right hand of God. (That’s a metaphor, by the way.) We speak of Christ whose presence is with us today. And that’s really important…but there is more.
But I have an invitation for you. We are going to be hearing a lot from the Gospel According to Mark in the lectionary this year (with a detour into John’s Gospel during Lent), and Mark provides a punchy, no-nonsense, early account of Jesus, the historical Jesus, who lived, walked, talked, preached, healed, proclaimed, and died in the Jewish homeland. Mark gives us a sometimes raw and unvarnished vision of who the Jesus of history was.
You may ask why the historical Jesus is important. The big theological answer is the incarnation of God in the person of Jesus, but I’ll set that aside for now. Jesus set an example of what it looks like to live a life fully in congruence with what God intends for humanity. In the version of the Lord’s Prayer we often sing, John Philip Newell writes “May your longings be ours,” which is another way to say that what mattered to the historical Jesus should matter to us…because it matters to God.
The historical Jesus is not so easily bent and contorted to fit our American vision of what a messiah should be. Instead, he was a disturber of the religious and political status quo, a sage of alternative wisdom, and a healer. The Jesus of history is an antidote to Christian Nationalism that co-opts the Christ of faith by putting words in the mouth of Jesus that he never spoke. He never said a word about abortion or same-sex love. The historical Jesus is also the yardstick by which Christians can and should measure our theology, whether it is our idea that God is still speaking or whether it is someone claiming to be a prophet thinks the former president should still be in the Oval Office. If you want to measure your message from the Holy Spirit, see how it looks in comparison to the life and teachings of the historical Jesus, and if it doesn’t measure up, it’s more likely to be your superego talking than it is God.
So, here is the invitation I extend to you: I invite you — no I implore you — to start talking about Jesus. Talk about Jesus and what he said about the poor, what he did in healing people without charge, what he meant by the phrase “the kingdom of God,” what Jesus was trying to do through his ministry and his public witness. As I watched the events of inauguration day last week, it occurred that we have entered a new era for progressive Christianity with a president informed deeply by Catholic social teaching and the social gospel. And in this morning’s New York Times, there is an article, “In Biden’s Catholic Faith, an Ascendant Liberal Christianity” that quotes Dr. William Barber saying, “Birth pangs require one thing: pushing.” Are you willing to push?
Have you ever noticed that the Black church has never had a problem talking about Jesus? We have something to learn! And the Jesus they talk about is most often the Jesus who blessed the poor, healed the sick, and stood up to empire. Can you push yourself outside your comfort zone to talk about Jesus? It’s a new day, and it’s time for us to claim our faith: to show people that the stereotype of White evangelicals doesn’t describe all Christians, and it doesn’t mean our view is exclusive of other faith traditions.
At the end of last year, I received a very thoughtful email from one of our members who wrote, “’We stand on the side of love’ or ‘Come just as you are’ constitute nice sentiments, to be sure. But how do they move us forward? Rather, perhaps we should say: ‘Come just as you are…but don’t expect to stay that way.’ Expect to be challenged and changed…and, occasionally, to be made a bit uncomfortable — that is how growth and progress occur.” YES! This is exactly the centerpiece of Plymouth’s mission statement that describes inviting, TRANSFORMING, and sending. The word you heard in our text this morning, REPENT, in Greek is metanoia, the shift of our hearts, minds, and actions toward the things that mattered most to Jesus. And it’s hard. Transformation is hard!
You may think that it’s hard to talk about Jesus…so just try it! What have you got to lose? People probably think you’re a bit of a crackpot for belonging to this church anyway! Try it! That’s my challenge to you this week.
And if you think talking about Jesus is difficult, imagine for a moment that you met Jesus, and he said to you, “Follow me and leave your classroom or your law practice or your small business or your retirement behind. I’m going to make you do something new that involves changing peoples’ lives!” What would you be willing to leave behind? Would you abandon your career? Your assumptions? Your fear of talking about Jesus? Your wealth? Your family? Imagine him speaking one-on-one directly to you.
It takes an incredible amount of trust in Jesus to take big steps. But here is something I know about you as a congregation: you have big hearts that match your big minds. Once something grabs you, you’ll give it your all, not just for a day or a week or a month. And if we really trust Jesus, we can take big risks for the kingdom.
So, what do you think Jesus is asking you to do as a person? What do you think Jesus is asking us to do as his followers? Where do you think Jesus is calling Plymouth in this new year? As we eventually leave the pandemic behind and we can come back together, what do you think Jesus wants us to do together for God’s world?
These words of Amanda Gorman are worth repeating:
“For there is always light if we are brave enough to see it,
If only we are brave enough to be it.”
Let’s be the light.
© 2021 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact hal at plymouthucc.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.
1 Samuel 3.1-20
2nd Sunday in Epiphany
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
1 Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the LORD under Eli. The word of the LORD was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.
2 At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; 3 the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the LORD, where the ark of God was. 4 Then the LORD called, "Samuel! Samuel!" and he said, "Here I am!" 5 and ran to Eli, and said, "Here I am, for you called me." But he said, "I did not call; lie down again." So he went and lay down. 6 The LORD called again, "Samuel!" Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, "Here I am, for you called me." But he said, "I did not call, my son; lie down again." 7 Now Samuel did not yet know the LORD, and the word of the LORD had not yet been revealed to him. 8 The LORD called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, "Here I am, for you called me." Then Eli perceived that the LORD was calling the boy. 9 Therefore Eli said to Samuel, "Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, 'Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.'" So Samuel went and lay down in his place.
10 Now the LORD came and stood there, calling as before, "Samuel! Samuel!" And Samuel said, "Speak, for your servant is listening." 11 Then the LORD said to Samuel, "See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle. 12 On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. 13 For I have told him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them. 14 Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli's house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever." 15 Samuel lay there until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the LORD. Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli. 16 But Eli called Samuel and said, "Samuel, my son." He said, "Here I am." 17 Eli said, "What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that he told you." 18 So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. Then he said, "It is the LORD; let him do what seems good to him."
19 As Samuel grew up, the LORD was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. 20 And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the LORD.
Traditionally, we speak of the Holy Spirit as the Comforter…. but I often find the Spirit as more of a Challenger. And Spirit comforts and challenges through the most mundane ways. This past Thursday morning as I sat drinking my coffee, waking up, checking the news and preparing to write my sermon, two news articles challenged me as I was thinking about our connection to the story of the boy, Samuel, called to be a prophet in ancient Israel. All week I had been considering the call of God to be a prophet as I chose hymns and wrote our meditative call to worship to evoke the theme of prophetic living.
The article that first gave me pause was from the Washington Post. It was titled “For some Christians the Capital riot doesn’t change the prophecies: Trump will be president.”[i] I knew we were deeply divided in Christianity, but I had not fully realized that there are Christians prophesying Donald Trump’s presidency, a presidency I have experienced as diametrically opposed to everything I hold dear as a Christian and an American. Religious scholar sources for this article say the people interviewed are practicing a neo-charismatic version of Christian faith that is even farther right in thinking and practice than the evangelical right wing. A Christian nationalism is conflating Christianity with patriotism. And their numbers are growing. The people interviewed were part of the crowd at the Capital on January 6th and their expressed intention in coming to the Capital was to pray that Donald Trump remain president, to show up for the prophecy they had received. Their prophets tell them that Trump is the Chosen One who will shut down an American elite class that is persecuting Christians and crushing what they believe to be Christian values. They are as passionate for their vision of justice as we are for our vision of justice. We have competing prophetic paths. It definitely feels as if the “true” word of the Lord is rare in our land, doesn’t it?
I wanted to write off these people as “kooks!” I wanted to say to myself, “They are delusional and uneducated. They have been duped by conspiracy theories. I know better, don’t I? I have a degree from Yale Divinity School. I can do proper exegesis of the scripture. I understand the ins and outs of biblical prophecy and it does not lead us to support someone proclaiming lies and misuse of power. I am ordained in the UCC! I know about true justice!” However, the Spirit challenged me with humility. I was challenged to try and see these Christians as people, not as evil others, even as I abhorred the violent actions of the crowd these folks were with. I was challenged to reach beneath their words to seek understanding of the true concerns of their hearts, to understand how they are my brothers and sisters in Christ, as foreign as they seem to me.
I pondered this moment, wondering, Have I just heard a word from the Lord? And I will tell you why: the word was humbling and challenging, ear-tingling if you will, and revealed to me something new and much needed that God was doing, at least within my heart. I also knew I could only participate in this change with God’s help, not on my power alone. I did not feel comfortable or triumphant. I felt fearful and confused in this revelation of my own prejudice and pride. Spirit challenged me: how would I take humble, peace-making action on this realization? My first action is to share the experience with you.
I find echoes of my experience in the story we heard just minutes ago about the boy Samuel and his first experience with hearing the word of the God. It seems the call to prophetic living is humbling and challenging and it cannot be silenced. It must be shared with others. Remember how the narrator begins our story saying that as Samuel was growing up, “The word of the Lord was rare.” “Vision was not widespread.” At this time there was no king or president in Israel. The priest, as prophetic presence, helped govern and lead the people because professionally, and one would hope personally, he was a channel between the human world and the Holy One. However, in the time of Samuel, Israel was being divided by greedy and power-mongering leadership. Sound familiar?
So, when Samuel humbly accepts the call to hear God’s word, he gets an ear-tingling, earful! The Lord gives him a prophecy condemning Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phinehas, younger priests who have been abusing their priestly power. These two are exploiting and seducing women who come to the temple to pray. They are confiscating the best cuts of sacrificial meat before the sacrifices are complete, thus, robbing the people of the expensive cuts of meat they have purchased to complete obligatory religious rituals. They are ignoring the warnings of their old father, Eli, who is trying to correct their immoral behavior. Thus, Samuel is given his first prophetic word from God, both painful and important. He knows it could get him into trouble. He only fearfully delivers it to his mentor and teacher, Eli, after much cajoling. “Your priestly house is ending,” says Samuel, “God is doing a new thing!”
What are new, ear-tingling thing is God doing that we are we called to hear as this committed community of faith? God is calling! And like Samuel discovered, the call will not necessarily be comfortable. It will be humbling. It will be a bit scary, maybe more than a bit, and outside our comfort zone. It may get us into trouble, good trouble in the words of the late senator from Georgia, John Lewis. UCC pastor, Donna Schaper, comments in an exegetical essay, on the story’s revelation that what God is going to do will make “both ears tingle.” She writes, “Since I hate sermons that make us have to be more heroic than we really are, I say…. Let one ear tingle with fear…Fear is spiritually legitimate….But listen now with the other ear…. Let it tingle too.”[ii]
Spirit’s ear-tingling challenge to me asked me to admit that it is harder for me to love these white Christians who are so very different from me than it is to love people of other faiths. There is my prophetic living challenge…how far can I live into God’s love….not condoning acts of injustice or violence…but extending my compassion, opening my heart to what I preach….that God’s love extends over all of us. And what actions will I take to extend God’s love to those so very different from me? I am asking for the courage to live into those answers as they come.
Now you may be saying to yourself…that is all very well for Samuel he was after all serving in the temple. Like you ministerial types, didn’t he sign up to hear God’s word and act on it? I’m just a regular person, not a prophet in training. And I say back to you…are you committed to the love and justice that was modeled by Jesus in his life, death and resurrection? Are you committed to – or at least concerned about - feeding the hungry, helping the homeless find a home, welcoming the immigrant, praying for peace, caring for the sick in body, mind or soul, nurturing the children and youth, being a voice for the voiceless, loving those cast out and cast down by our culture, saving our world from environmental disaster and global warming? Any of the above? If so, then I believe you are called to be a prophetic presence for God’s justice and love in our times. And I believe you are called to listen as attentively, as carefully as you can! What is making at least one ear tingle with fear? And the other with a new possibility?
The call comes at mundane moments. When we are just lying in our bed before sleep, musing over the day. Or drinking our first cup of morning coffee. We have an unexpected thought. A preposterous idea. Are you listening?
The second news article that challenged me on Thursday morning came from NPR. It seems that there is a restaurant in California run by an award-winning chef,[iii] of Top Chef TV fame. Though it is well-known, it is still struggling in the midst of pandemic as they downsize their business into predominantly take-out orders. One day not long ago they received an online breakfast order, paid for, with a message saying, “This order will not be picked up by the person ordering it. Please make sure that it goes to someone who needs a meal.” The chef who owns the restaurant was so moved that she posted the order message on Facebook. Within a few minutes, another order came into the restaurant, paid for, and with the same message. And another. And another. By now the restaurant has received almost 250 orders for food that is paid for by someone who will not pick it up and who wants the meal given to someone in need. This influx of orders is helping the chef pay her employees and helping others in her community not even connected to her business. Who started this? A teacher in Texas. Not a hugely rich, powerful person, but an “ordinary” teacher. And the love has come back around because someone, after discovering this teacher’s gift to the restaurant, went onto Amazon and saw her wish list of supplies for her classroom. That someone paid for all those supplies helping children they had never met.
A word from the Lord! A delightful new way of working together for the good of people! What if we as a country took this system of paying it forward and helping others as our primary way of working instead of being crippled by greed, selfishness and the lust for power over other people? Would we be as divided as we are now? Would we be better able to see and love and relate to those who now seem “other” as brothers and sisters?
Listen! The word of the Lord is always present! Our ears can always be tingling with the God’s word of justice and love! Listen! Follow. Act in Love. Amen
[ii] Donna Schaper, “Pastoral Essay”, 1 Samuel 3.1-20, Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Feasting on the Word” Year B, Volume 1, edited by David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville, KY, 2008, 246
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. Carla Cain began her ministry at Plymouth as a Designated Term Associate Minister (two years) in December 2019. Learn more about Carla here.
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