New SightRead Now
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Cong’l UCC
19 March 2023
I love that Jesus overturns the “blame the victim” mentality by saying that this man’s blindness is not fault of his own or his parents’; instead, his real thrust is giving new sight to the blind. There is certainly a literal dimension that can be derived from the story: that Jesus spat into the dirt, rubbed mud in the blind man’s eyes, and sent him to wash in the pool of Siloam, restoring his vision. There are more healing stories about Jesus than anyone else in Jewish tradition. And if we limit our interpretation of the story to that one view, it is applicable only to that one person, 2,000 years ago, not to us.
Speaking metaphorically, we all have blind spots, don’t we? There are things we’d rather not know about – that we’d rather not see – perhaps because we are already overloaded with suffering in the world and even in our own lives. I know that lots of us are overwhelmed.
But we do an amazing job in this congregation of seeing and doing. And we do pretty well as a denomination also, especially through our One Great Hour of Sharing offering. Here is the thing about One Great Hour of Sharing: We didn’t necessarily SEE where our dollars were going when we gave last year at this time, but we had a vision for what it might do. (Are you able to visualize that distinction?) In retrospect, one of the things you made possible was an immediate UCC response to the relief from the war in Ukraine. But at the beginning of 2022, we had no idea that war would come to Ukraine bringing devastation and a huge refugee crisis. Even though none of us saw that situation in advance, your giving to One Great Hour of Sharing made refugee relief possible from the very onset of the crisis.
One of the shortcomings of focusing just on local outreach that we can see is that it limits our scope of vision to only those in our midst. There are great needs in other parts of the country and other parts of the world that you and I may never see ourselves, but they are situations where our global partners need our help. I’m not saying that doing local outreach work is unimportant. We know it is important because we can see it. But it is also vital that we develop vision that focuses more broadly on the needs of God’s world.
Sometimes our blindness is closer to home. We are unable to see what is most important. We take it for granted until it is gone, or almost gone – whether it is our health, our relationships, or just being alive. We need to open our eyes to the world around us, to the people around us, to ourselves, and to the holy.
There are things we cannot see with our eyes, but that we know to be true. Physicists don’t actually see subatomic particles, but they see evidence for their existence. And how many of us doubt the existence of quarks and neutrinos, just because nobody has ever laid eyes on them?
I listened to a talk by Amy Jill Levine, a respected New Testament scholar, and she claimed that there are real, invisible things in our lives that no one should try to negate or to take away. She spoke about faith. No one ever sees faith, and it isn’t even a logical concept. One can see the impact and result of lives lived faithfully. No one ever sees love, which also isn’t a logical concept. Yet we see the effects of love every day. Just because we cannot see things with our eyes does mean they are not real.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote in The Little Prince: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly.” If our blindness is in our hearts, rather than our eyes, we can ask God to apply some mud, and wash our hearts, and then we’ll be able to see. The restoration of sight to people like us, whose hearts are unable to see, is a tall order.
When Jesus is quoted in John’s gospel, saying, “I am the light of the world,” the gospel writer proclaims that it is Jesus who gives us a vision of what is real, because he illuminates reality for us: the things we can see with our hearts, rather than just with our eyes.
What is it that keeps you from “seeing rightly?” What is impairing your sight? I was reading a Lenten devotional essay this week and it struck me that what keeps many of us from seeing clearly is fear. The author claims that “frightened people will never turn the world right-side up, because they use too much energy on protection of self. It is the vocation of the baptized…to help make the world whole: The unafraid are open to the neighbor, while the frightened are defending themselves from the neighbor.
The unafraid are generous in the community, while the frightened, in their anxiety, must keep and store and accumulate, to make themselves feel safe.
The unafraid commit acts of compassion and mercy, while the frightened do not notice those in need.
The unafraid are committed to justice for the weak and the poor, while the frightened seem them only as threats.
The unafraid pray in the morning, care through the day, and rejoice at night in thanks and praise, while the frightened are endlessly restless and dissatisfied.” Is fear holding you back from seeing with the eyes of your heart?
John Newton’s blind spot was the self-deception that the slave trade was morally acceptable, but after having his viewpoint transformed, he wrote “Amazing Grace” to describe his experience. When have you been blind, but now you see?
This occurs not just among individuals, but in institutions, as well. The church has certainly has had its share of blind spots over the millennia, whether in forbidding the ordination of women, using scripture to justify slavery, demonizing LGBTQ folks, or developing Christian nationalism in Nazi Germany and in our own nation.
On a more local level, I wonder what our blind spots at Plymouth have been, and are today. I’m sure if we tried, we could come up with quite a laundry list! Where have we not had the vision to do what needs to be done? Sometimes our lack of vision involves traveling along the safe route, when taking some risks would be a more faithful response.
If we are bathed in the light of the Christ, we are called to open the eyes of our hearts and see the reality we cannot necessarily see with our eyes. May it be so. Amen.
 Walter Brueggemann, A Way Other than Our Own: Devotions for Lent. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017) p.60-61.
Become the LakeRead Now
Born Again?Read Now
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning, Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
5 March 2023
By a show of hands, how many of us are fully comfortable with the term, “Born again?” Some of us have come from evangelical traditions in which being born again is normative. Second question: How many of you have ever been accosted by someone who has asked if you have been “born again?” Final question: How many of you have somewhat negative feelings about the term, “born again?”
The New Revised Standard Version translates this phrase from the Greek as “born from above,” which may sound different to our ears because lacks the familiar ring of “born again.” The NRSV also offers a second translation: “born anew,” but both of these translations would cause Nicodemus to ask how one could be born after growing older or by entering a mother’s womb a second time.
Do you ever wonder about that: why the term makes you feel uncomfortable or leaves you scratching your head? Maybe you think you aren’t “that kind of Christian” or maybe you felt judged or maybe you just find it to be a mysterious term.
When I was a freshman at UC Santa Barbara, I had a roommate named Conal. He was a nice enough guy who had grown up in an Episcopal church in the Central Valley of California but had found a home in a Pentecostal church in Santa Barbara. At that time in my life, I was struggling with the church of my youth, as many young adults do. Conal asked me if I had been born again (I answered “no”) and if I would like to join him at his church on a Sunday morning (I answered “no thank you”). Conal asked again… and again… and again, and I finally relented. This was an entirely different church experience for me, a nice New England Congregational boy. It was as if going into the worship space, these folks started acting in a very peculiar way, almost as if they had taken some kind of drug that kicked in at the beginning of the service and ended when they left the building. And I had never before felt so uncomfortable and out of place. I kept wanting to run screaming from the building, but I was too polite and stuck it out until the end of the service. That was the last time I darkened the doorstep of any church for years.
In those days it almost felt as if being “born again” was a litmus test for being a “real” Christian. It is almost as if being born again was a wall between Christians who considered it central and those who thought it didn’t apply to them. Many of us, then and now, don’t want to be cast in the same light as Jim and Tammy Faye or Jimmy Swaggart or Benny Hinn, all of whom emphasized the importance of being born again. Joel Osteen’s website says, “Pray this aloud: ‘Lord Jesus, I repent of my sins. Come into my heart. Wash me clean. I make you my Lord and Savior, Amen.’ We believe that if you prayed that simple prayer, you have been born again.”
Maybe that is why many progressive Christians feel the need to distance themselves from the concept of being born again. It has a lot of baggage in our culture, which is tragic, because it is such a beautiful way of approaching transformation in our lives. And I’d like to suggest that deep, internal transformation is far more nuanced and that it requires more than repeating a forumulaic prayer.
What if we imagined being born again not as a wall to divide the saved from the damned, but rather as a bridge between old, non-life-giving ways of thinking and new possibilities of reorienting our priorities and our lives? It may be helpful to speak about being “born anew” and if that is still too close, think about it as being “born from above.” And it’s not a one-off: We can be born from above again and again and again.
It’s important to remember the source of this passage. It is from John’s Gospel, which unlike the first three in our Bible, is a mystical text, rather than a document that attempts to convey “an orderly account.” The writer of this gospel wants you to see beyond what is in front of you and use your imagination to envision the realm of the possible. It’s very right-brain and uses heaps of metaphor. In today’s brief scripture, Nicodemus takes a literal approach when Jesus mentions being born anew…how can one re-enter a mother’s womb? Duh…it’s a metaphor for deep transformation! It represents a life-changing process that broadens one’s view and makes new things possible.
When he was here as our Visiting Scholar, John Dominic Crossan used another metaphor to describe this deep transformation. (And if Dom is willing to offer a metaphor, let all those with ears listen!) He said that being born anew is like receiving a heart transplant. You’ve probably seen images of a cardiothoracic surgeon removing the old, diseased heart from a patient and implanting a new, healthy heart, shocking it, and essentially bringing the patient back to life. Dom is not referring to transplanting the beating, pumping muscle in your chest, but rather the sense of deep knowing, feeling, emotion, perception, and motivation that are embodied in the metaphorical heart. What would it look like for us to have a heart transplant in that way? What newness of outlook and life might we expect?
In some 18th century Congregational churches in New England a criterion for membership was a “visible sign” of conversion, evidence that one had been born from above. (That is a bit more nuanced than Joel Osteen’s formula.)
Let me approach it a somewhat different way. What are some of the ways you see folks here at Plymouth or elsewhere showing evidence of transformation or newness of life? What acts of compassion do you see them committing that might convince you that they have reordered the priorities in their lives to put the way of Jesus first? I can share a few. When I see the folks who stay overnight in our church to accompany families experiencing homelessness, I see it as a mark of a transformed life. When I hear of someone commit to teaching Sunday school for an entire year, it shows a transformed soul. When I see people show up for a refugee family or for a Palestinian student and his family, I see people whose lives have been transformed. When I witness extraordinary acts of generosity in our congregation, I see it as less about someone’s ability to give and more about their inclination, regardless of the size of the gift. I see those not as a cause, but as an effect of having had a heart transplant.
I don’t think we can force being born anew. I think we need to be open to the possibility of that transformation and then welcome it when it comes. Some of that involves allowing old certainties and old fears to melt away. And it involves seeking and openness to fresh ways of being in the world. Maybe some of the things we have grasped need to be released. Some of the ways of living or measures of success that we once thought were important can be let go of. And I also think it is something we can ask for in our prayer lives. All our lives have room for transformation.
Here is what one born again Christian, Jimmy Carter, said about his faith: “I have one life and one chance to make it count for something….My faith demands that I do whatever I can, wherever I am, for as long as I can with whatever I have to try and make a difference.” What I’m driving at is that you can be born from above and still be committed to the progressive spirit.
Christians do not have a corner on the market of spiritual transformation, and certainly this transformation of our priorities, our perspectives, and the way we live our lives have precious little to do with saying a formulaic prayer.
Marcus Borg writes, “But rightly understood, being born again is a very rich and comprehensive notion. It is at the very center of the New Testament and the Christian life. We need to reclaim it.”
May we at Plymouth in this season of seeking, open ourselves to the journey of transformation and invite it in.
© 2023 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact email@example.com for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
 Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith, (San Francisco, HarperSanFrancisco, 2003), p. 105.
Seeking and... ListeningRead Now
First Sunday in Lent, Year A
My Farewell Sunday
Plymouth Congregational, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
This morning our scripture text is a familiar one for the first Sunday in Lent, a story that is in all three of the synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke. We hear from Matthew today who was writing to a Jewish Christian community intent on knowing who Jesus is as the Human One and the Son of God. And we hear language traditional and colloquial to Matthew’s time, “the devil” or “Satan” who “tempts” Jesus to see if he can trip him up and then “angels” who come to minister to him. I did a particular word study of the New Testament Greek to understand these words better. If we can, let’s put aside our preconceived notions of these words, images of anthropomorphic evil with a red body suit and horns, of little white winged cherubs, of traditional good versus evil, one of these must die notions, to hear this text in a new way. I am reading from the Common English Bible and I have used my word study to amplify our understanding of the text.
Then the Spirit led Jesus up into the wilderness so that the [accuser, the slanderer, known colloquially as the devil] might test him. After Jesus had fasted for forty days and forty nights, he was starving. The [slanderer] came to him and said, "Since you are God's Son, command these stones to become bread." Jesus replied, "It's written, People won't live only by bread, but by every word spoken by God." After that the [slanderer] brought him into the holy city and stood him at the highest point of the temple. He said to him, "Since you are God's Son, throw yourself down; for it is written, I will command my angels concerning you, and they will take you up in their hands so that you won't hit your foot on a stone." Jesus replied, "Again it's written, ‘Don't test the Lord your God.’" Then [the slanderer] brought him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. He said, "I'll give you all these if you bow down and worship me." Jesus responded, "Go away, Satan, [you slandering adversary!], because it's written, You will worship the Lord your God and serve only God." The [slanderer] left Jesus, and angels, [messengers of the Holy,] came and took care of him. Bible, Common English. CEB Common English Bible with Apocrypha - eBook [ePub] (Kindle Locations 37952-37964).
In 1979 Bob Dylan came out with a series of songs influenced by his understanding at the time of born-again Christianity. Not traditional praise music as was popular at the time. It was after all Bob Dylan. Though he did not remain a born-again Christian on his faith journey, he wrote some wonderfully pointed lyrics. This one song always comes to me when I hear the story we just read together. It’s titled “Gotta Serve Somebody.”
You may be an ambassador to England or France
You may like to gamble, you might like to dance
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world
You might be a socialite with a long string of pearls
But you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You're gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the Devil or it may be the Lord
But you're gonna have to serve somebody...[full lyrics]
Dylan gives us the clue to Matthew’s story of Jesus in the wilderness with the adversary. When you go off seeking on your journey of faith…. which really we are all doing all the time…. who will you listen to? Who will you trust? Who will you serve? Jesus had just been baptized by John and heard a voice from heaven say, "This is my [Child] whom I dearly love; I find happiness in him." (Matt. 3:17) So after this affirmation, Jesus does something we see him do many times in the gospels, he goes into the wilderness to pray, to seek the Holy, led by the Spirit. And it at just such times for all of us –and so for Jesus – that doubts arise, questions of trust. “Am I really hearing what I think I am hearing? Should I really be doing what I think the Spirit of God is calling me to do? Who am I to think I can do such things, to answer such a call? To even think that God is “speaking” to me?”
If we are seekers of the Holy in any way shape or form, followers of Jesus, we will have times when we wonder about our listening skills. This is what is happening in the wilderness story that we traditionally hear at the beginning of Lent, a time in the church calendar year, set aside for intentional seeking of God. So instead of seeing this story as a battle of superheroes, good versus evil, with one of them getting smote in the end, let’s listen to this story this Lent as a story about listening. It echoes the story of Adam and Eve in the garden naively listening to the serpent, the adversary. They learned that naïve listening has consequences. I have learned that lesson several times over in my life. I bet you may have as well.
In the wilderness, Jesus is supported by a long legacy of listening. He is steeped in the traditions of his family faith, in the teachings of Mary and Joseph and the rabbis of his youth. He is steeped in listening to the teachings of scripture as he answers each of the adversary’s challenges with words from Deuteronomy, teachings Moses gave the people as they entered the Promised Land. “God fed the people with manna in the wilderness and did not let them starve…therefore we know that God’s people do not live by bread alone, but by trust in God.” “Yes, I know God will hold me up and support me, but foolishly testing God by intentionally putting myself in harm’s way is not how I want to be in relationship with God…we are already in a relationship of trust.” Then finally, “Get behind me, Slanderer of God! I do not follow the Holy One for wealth and power, but for faithfulness, forgiveness and love.”
So how are our listening skills as we seek the Holy One this Lent? We, too, hear the voices that distract us from seeking faith, voices that mistrust the ways of God. How will we hone our listening skills? Hold that question as I tell you a bit about how I been honing mine.
Many of you have asked what I will be doing after retirement from parish ministry. I have been training over the last two years to be a spiritual director. As of March 18, I will have completed my training and be officially certified. And I must thank all of you for this opportunity because the continuing education money that Plymouth provides its pastors as part of our call agreements has supported the bulk of my training. You all go with me into my next phase of ministry! But what is a spiritual director? A spiritual director is someone who listens. She accompanies another holy soul on their spiritual journey by listening to their experiences, their questions, their doubts as well as their deep sense of knowing. The person might be Christian or Jewish or Buddhist or another faith, spiritual, but not religious, simply a seeker of the Divine. Through listening and observing, wondering with the directee, a spiritual director is a companion on the journey with some skills to invite deeper contemplation of the journey and deeper listening to the self where the Holy resides. Spiritual directors work one on one with people, in person or now just as commonly on Zoom. And if this process intrigues you, your two pastors after March 1st, Hal and Marta, can help you find a spiritual director. I cannot be that person because of appropriate boundaries. However, being the good listeners that they are, they will help you find the right spiritual director for you!
Now back to our question for today… How will we hone our listening skills this Lent as followers of Jesus? You don’t need two years of intensive training. You – we - have already started! We are here in worship listening to God’s Word in scripture, in music and song, listening to God’s presence in our lives in prayer [and the sacrament of communion], in fellowship with one another, in the call to service through our mission activities. How will we deepen our listening to the Holy this Lent?
Here is what I leave with you as I retire from parish ministry and move into the ministry of spiritual direction: Know that the Holy is immanent, right here and right now, with us, inherent in and permanently pervading and sustaining all that is, from the depths of space to the depths of you. We cannot escape God and God’s loving presence. Doubts may arise. Thoughts and decisions that feel like tests or temptations. When this happens, listen to the Holy within you, for you are each made in God’s image. Listen by steeping yourself in what truly sustains you, not just entertains you. What sustains you, nature, solitude and silence, prayer, reading, conversation with those you trust to listen with you to the Holy. Seeking you will find listening. Listening you will find direction and you will know who you serve. We cannot escape serving someone, as Bob Dylan, reminds us. We cannot escape listening deeply, as Jesus did in the wilderness. We can trust that in all the process of seeking, listening, serving we are held by the immanent, all-pervading love of God. I will be listening with you…even if from a distance. However, we will still be connected by that invisible string that is God’s immanent and loving presence.
Blessings and love and prayers for you, my beloved family of faith at Plymouth. Amen.
©The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson, 2023 and beyond. May be reprinted only with permission.
Transfiguration InspirationRead Now
A Transfiguration Sunday sermon related to Matthew 17:1-8
That the transfiguration story is s source of inspiration amidst struggle, a theophany of Light and Renewal to "Get up and be not afraid" as we head back down the mountain.
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 2 And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became bright as light. 3 Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.
4 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I[a] will set up three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 5 While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, the Beloved;[b] with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”
6 When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7 But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” 8 And when they raised their eyes, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.
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
They were young and in love (at least 23 and 18 seem young to me now). So they married. She was pregnant and they were happy about it. They loved each other and wanted to be married. The baby came and eventually two others. Young love is not an unusual story, but this love does have an unusual twist of context. You see it was 1958 and husband Richard Loving was what our society calls white (European American) and wife Mildred was what our society called back then "colored." (Her lineage was African American and Native American.) And, in the State of Virginia in 1958, interracial marriage was forbidden, a felony, and punishable by significant jail time.
After marrying quietly in the District of Columbia and returning to Virginia to live quietly, someone tipped off the police who then raided their bedroom in the middle of the night and arrested them. They plea bargained for a sentence of one year in jail to be suspended, provided they left Virginia for 25 years, never in that time to return together. These country people lived in DC for years away from family and the country life they loved before Mildred appealed to Attorney General Robert Kennedy who referred them to the ACLU. The ACLU provided free legal support that over several years finally landed their case in front of the Supreme Court who overturned Virginia’s and all such state laws in 1967.
My wife and I watched the dramatized version of this story some years ago in the feature film titled simply and appropriately, Loving. That cinematic way of telling the story allowed me to see and feel the love between these two and the anguish, pain, and struggle that these two people, these two citizens, endured. Born of fear and systematized into law, the injustice of white supremacy caused these two to be sometimes separated from each other, separated from family, and to be exiled from their home. It was an inspiration to witness their love, their perseverance, their strength, and their courage in staying together and in finally finding a way to publicly and legally resist.
It is appropriate to uplift such stories of courage and justice making, even more so during Black History month. And there are other such stories brought to film. Selma is the dramatized version of the story of seeking voting rights in Selma, Alabama and of the events and efforts of 1965 at the end of this long campaign that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. 13th is a documentary film outlining the historic pattern of turning the racial discrimination of slavery into the racial discrimination of criminalization, using the 13th Amendment to the Constitution which forbids slavery, but allows an exception when one is duly convicted of a crime.
Difficult stories these are, yet inspiring in their witness to those who put their lives and bodies on the line for the truth of justice, the truth of liberation, the truth of the dignity of the human person, all persons. Feature films are one of the common ways we tell stories today.
Our tradition of faith is also gifted with stories, ancient stories. Their distance of time and culture can make them seem less accessible than the movies which are a primary form of storytelling in our age, but the effort to overcome that distance can be worth it. These sacred stories are meant as teaching, reflection, and inspiration just as they were for the early Christian communities.
This morning’s story can seem particularly distant, especially if you are not a mystic and not inclined to imaginative prayer visions. It can be easy to classify this story as very "religious" and simply a story to support some kind of high theological and doctrinal view of Jesus as Divine. But, this morning, I offer that, looking closer, we can see something more, something more for Matthew’s community and something more for our community.
Context is important always to shape our imaginations in getting the story’s fullest impact and import. Matthew’s author is writing to a community still wondering what it means to follow the lineage of Judaism now that the Temple has been destroyed by the Romans after another failed revolt. Matthew’s author is writing to a community wondering if they will be safe, if they have a place, in this new version of Roman Empire occupying their land.
My UCC colleague Rev. Anne Dunlap offered insight into the context of this story of Transfiguration in an online sermon on this text and I gratefully follow her lead here in further understanding the context of this sacred story. The baby Jesus, visited by the Magi, subsequently has to flee for safety south to Egypt. After returning, Jesus has grown up, been baptized by John in the Jordan River, and has begun teaching and healing. He has spoken his Sermon on the Mount (much longer than any I would give!), gathered and sent out disciples, and has made his way to many towns and cities.
But something significant happens in chapter 14 that subtly changes the tone of Matthew’s Gospel: the incarcerated John the Baptist is executed. Another movement leader killed by the empire. The one who baptized Jesus, to whom he was related in blood and in a message of Holy resistance and change, murdered by the state. We notice that Jesus from this point on seeks refuge regularly in deserted places like mountain tops. And, just prior to our story in Chapter 17, he begins to talk about the suffering he is to endure, even having to forcefully rebuke his close disciple Peter who discourages the path of suffering. Immediately after our story of transfiguration, Jesus speaks of John the Baptist and his fate.
So it appears the context of the Transfiguration story is of a Jesus under duress of the system, under a growing threat as his movement grows, under the shadow of the cross. And where does he go in such a state? He goes to the mountain to pray. He takes the support of community with him. He seeks and finds the support of the ancestors. He listens for and hears a Divine Voice of Affirmation. Faced with his mortality and vulnerability, he seeks the Divine Light. And while Peter offers to build dwellings to stay there and they all respond with fear to God’s presence and message to follow, it is Jesus who touches them and says, “Get up and do not be afraid.”
“Get up and do not be afraid.”
The story of Transfiguration is a story for our difficult stories, for our difficult times when Herod or Caesar, the one out in the world or the one inside of us, is on our trail. The Transfiguration Story is a story for us, an invitation to experience the Divine Light and hear Divine Affirmation so that we can be like those who persevered in their love for each other amidst hard times,
so that we can be like those seeking voting rights who got up after being knocked down by State Troopers,
and be like those who see the painful path of injustice and have the courage to seek and even suffer another path for justice.
Transfiguration is a story of Spirit’s power to touch us, bless us, and send us back into the world as it is so we might witness with our lives to how it can be.
One of the possible translations here is that Peter wanted to build three sanctuaries. Jesus’ message to him was that, with the power of Divine Light and Truth, and of the ancestors, we must overcome our fear, get up, and come down the mountain to be sanctuaries in the world. Transfiguration is a story of the Divine Light that has the power to sustain us in the difficult times. We can be like the disciples focused on the power of the Christ Mystery. We can be like Jesus and become infused with God’s Light. We can know Transfiguration Inspiration so that we can come down the mountain and become sanctuaries in the world. May this be so. AMEN
Get Salty!Read Now
Deuteronomy 30.15-20 & Matthew 5.13-20
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning, Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
12 February 2023
People of a certain age will remember a rock musical loosely based on the Gospel of Matthew called Godspell. And whenever I read this section of the Sermon on the Mount, I always think of the song “Light of the World,” that early 70s rock anthem the company sings in Godspell. The great thing about that song is that it got the Sermon on the Mount out into the popular culture of the time. (Have you ever noticed how seldom our more conservative Christian brethren mention the Sermon on the Mount or even quote the historical Jesus?) It’s striking to me that John’s Gospel, the last of the four in our Bible to be written, quotes Jesus as saying, “I am the light of the world,” while Matthew and Luke record Jesus as saying, “You are the light of the world.” Think about the difference for a moment. Will you do something with me? Will you all please say with me, “I am the light of the world!’’ How did that feel? Odd or funny or does it fit like a glove? And now turn to a person next to you or behind you…make sure everyone hears someone else say this to them: “You are the light of the world!” How did that feel to say that to someone? And how did it feel to hear someone say that to you? Is it scary, empowering, daunting?
My friends, we have come through the valley of the shadow of death together these last three years of pandemic. But the light of the world is beginning to re-emerge. So, let’s help to kindle one another’s light and see how bright we can shine.
This week the Church of England finally agreed to perform same-sex unions. And it’s…2023! I was thinking about my experience 17 years ago as a delegate the UCC General Synod where we voted to affirm same-sex marriage. I was a delegate that year, and I quoted John Winthrop’s “City on a Hill” sermon to encourage delegates to vote in favor, which they did. And there was fallout. Churches left the denomination, and the Puerto Rico Conference left the UCC. So, here is what I said in 2005: https://vimeo.com/222746301
We have to make choices that matter and choices that affirm the fullness of life. Not just acknowledging but celebrating the marriage of same-sex couples brings light and life. When the UCC became the first mainline denomination to endorse same-sex marriage, we were letting our light shine, and it continues to illuminate others.
I sometimes see Colorado license plates that say, “Choose life,” and I assume that they are quoting Deuteronomy, where Moses tells the Israelites who were still in Moab and had not yet entered the Promised Land. He lays out two options for them: they can either choose goodness and life by following the ways of God or they can choose death by ignoring divine wisdom and guidance.
There is a larger truth there. Through Moses, God shows us a righteous path, the life-giving way of justice and shalom. Through Jesus, God encourages you and me to follow the path of self-giving love. It’s a costly path that will eventually cause us to abandon the false gods of self-interest, greed, and tribalism (also known as family values) in favor following Jesus in systemic change that supplies daily bread for all, forgives debts, and acknowledges the sovereignty of the Kingdom of God.
“Walking in God’s ways” is the guidepost that Moses sets out in Deuteronomy. And though we don’t talk too much at Plymouth about following the law, we need to be mindful of walking in God’s ways. That can be difficult, because we live in a culture that often presents a different path, telling us that it’s about me and mine, not about us and ours. That we should care about our own family first and then other peoples’ families as an afterthought if at all. That Christian faith is anti-science, politically regressive, and hate-filled. And yet, here we are, trying to walk in God’s ways not so that we earn individual merit that will get us into heaven, but so that we can get beyond the narrow confines of a hyperactively consumerist culture that is destroying humanity and the planet, God’s Creation, along with it. We are trying to follow the path of life and avoid the way that leads toward death.
And there is deep, deep joy in that journey together! I think we have missed out on some of that joy during the pandemic when we were isolated, but I certainly saw glimmers of it when our Beloved Community gathered to meet Reverend Marta and last Sunday to have our first big potluck in three years. (Eating together is an important piece of Christian culture, going right back to our Jewish roots.)
One of the adjectives that I’ve always used when I think about Plymouth is “zesty!” We are not a bland group of people who approach our faith as something flavorless and risk-free and just like every other mainline church. We are folks who don’t mind being trailblazing for others or being willing to step out on issues like LGBTQ issues and gun violence that our faith calls us to act on. We have tended to be the denomination that gets there first. Yet, I’ve worried a bit about whether the isolation of the pandemic years had beaten some of the savor out of us. Damn it, we’re tired. We’re afraid of what future holds. I know we are. Some of us are afraid about the economy. I get it.
Have you felt a little less zesty during the pandemic? Personally, I feel like a lot of my saltiness got leeched out into a brackish swamp of worry and fear and crisis; it has been tough to lead a church through this time. Something is changing. I don’t know if you are starting to sense this, but I am: Some of that savor is beginning to return. We are shifting from a church trying to survive to a church that will thrive.
I’m catching glimpses a profound shift here at Plymouth. I got a lovely email from one of our board chairs on Thursday morning saying what an exciting meeting she had with her board on Wednesday night. It’s a board that has struggled during the pandemic, and there is new life and new light there! They’re getting salty!
Did you get a little taste of saltiness when you hear Marta preach two weeks ago? Did you get a hint of flavor sharing a potluck with your fellow members last week? Yes, we have big financial challenges to face as a congregation, and we together we will walk through those challenges, not blandly, but with flavor!
I don’t know if you listened to the State of the Union address last week, but there was great resonance for me in what the President said: “Two years ago, Covid had shut down, our businesses were closed, our schools were robbed of so much. [And I would add churches.] And today, Covid no longer controls our lives…. As we gather here tonight, we’re writing the next chapter in the great American story, a story of progress and resilience.” That story of progress and resilience is true of Plymouth as well.
But here is what we have going for us: a wisdom tradition and faith that has survived for millennia that guides us on the path toward what is life-giving, that asks each of us individually and all of us together to choose life and not go off-course toward the way of death. We have a savior who has shown us the path of self-giving love and living a life that doesn’t just add joyful seasoning to our own lives, but also provides life-sustaining nutrient savor to the lives of others.
Let’s go for it, friends! Let’s choose life! Let’s get salty! Let’s live the life we were created for as part of this movement.
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.
Yes and NoRead Now
Yes and No
A sermon based on Matthew 5:33-37 (The Message version)
Being clear about our own truth and our own boundaries, allows us to be more loving and is more of a service to God, to the other person, and to God’s Realm.
And don’t say anything you don’t mean. This counsel is embedded deep in our traditions. You only make things worse when you lay down a smoke screen of pious talk, saying, ‘I’ll pray for you,’ and then never doing it or saying, ‘God be with you,’ and not meaning it. You don’t make your words true by embellishing them with religious lace. In making your speech sound more religious, it becomes less true. Just say “yes’ and ‘no.’ When you manipulate words to get your own way, you go wrong.
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
Think of a time when you said yes to someone, but you really wanted to say NO. Or, a time when you said NO, but realized you really wanted to say yes. It might have been a small thing like going to a movie or getting ice cream or a big thing like taking a job or buying a house. You might have known your true answer in the moment or perhaps later.
This morning we are moving into our Annual Congregational Meeting and will be asked to say yes or no on matters of the congregation. So it seems appropriate to name and to know that Jesus speaks to us about matters of discernment and declaration. He seems to want us to be truthful and clear and to know ourselves as we declare our yes and no.
My sense is that Matthew’s Community has Jesus teaching about this in the important Sermon on the Mount because being clear about our own truth and our own boundaries actually allows us to be more loving which is more of a service to God, to the other person, and to God’s Realm. The Beloved Community is a place where community building covenants are made, and made well, and therefore kept. I think Jesus understood that community, real and worthy community that finds its way to justice and peace, is based on truthful, sincere and appropriate covenants. And relationship covenants are based on good boundaries of yes and no.
In a church I used to pastor, one of the three simple questions of new members that I asked during the ritual of membership was “Are you willing to say both yes and no?”
I must admit that I have often not been free and willing to do that because I was afraid that my authentic answer would affect the relationship negatively. Jesus challenges me and us in calling us to be authentic and in a way that builds relationships and strengthens community.
I have an idea about that and a process I want to share with you. Here’s what we often don’t realize or remember:
I believe that this positive No is at the heart of how we clarify and ground the oaths and covenants that build loving and just relationships. A positive No serves relationships by building them on the clarity and truth of what is and by minimizing the likelihood that whatever covenant has been made will be broken because a lurking unexpressed resentment or disagreement or disrespect. Let’s explore….
What do people do that is not a positive NO? Or, you could say, what is a negative No? Three things: accommodate, attack, or avoid.
A positive no honors both parties in that it empowers you to be true, to not hurt yourself or the other, and it keeps respect for the other and openness to the possibility of another agreement and to the ongoing relationship.
So how can one do this?
In most sacred traditions, including ours, there is the presence of a symbolic Tree of Life. That Tree can serve well as an image for how we can find our positive No which empowers us to follow the teaching of Jesus in being clear about our yes and our no.
Let’s divide that tree into three parts; roots, trunk, and upper branches and leaves. There are three parts to a positive No that can correspond to the tree image; an internal yes, our external No, and another external yes.
Let’s start with the roots.
If we are to have a positive No, we must go inward, down into our own roots and know what is important to us. What do we truly want? Where are we trying to go? What are we trying to do? What vision is calling to us? This taproot is our deep yes, our basic values and commitments.
For those following in the Christ Way, we are asked to say yes to some basic understandings
This place of the Yes, of the “roots” is the also the place to know who we are individually, uniquely, deeply.
What are my values? What do I want ultimately? What is mine to do? How is my unique life going to express God’s Yes to me and to all life?
This is the place to find our deep yes!
We can often miss what is true here because we are unaware of our unconscious motives and commitments. This inquiry into our deep roots is critical to working through our yes and no.
OK, now to the trunk of that tree.
This is the No that we identify and express. Out of our roots where we find our deep yes, comes the identification of what then does not serve that Yes. If I have made time commitments and affirm that I am only one person with limits of time and space, I might have to say NO to a request for volunteering or working overtime or giving my time up to television or continuing a destructive behavior like an addiction.
Setting a NO boundary is being faithful to our deeper Yes.
We might disappoint someone else, but we cannot really agree to something with integrity that we are asked unless we actually see the yes in it. Saying yes to things that we know are not the right thing for us in that moment leads to resentment and sabotage of that covenant later on, even unconsciously or passive-aggressively, or it leads to a loss of self-respect or a depression that hides anger. We can punish ourselves or another person (often both) for not being true to our deeper Yes.
When discrimination or hatred or insult come, if our deeper Yes to God’s Grace and our making in the divine image is to be served, we must reject messages or treatment that says we are less than that. The civil rights movement was and is a giant positive NO movement. Speaking up and saying Black Lives Matter is a positive No to all that does not honor equally the lives of black people. Speaking up and acting against the discrimination and hatred of gay or lesbian or transgender people is positive NO to all that does not honor equally the lives of LGBTQ people. These positive No statements are based in a deep Yes to seeing all of us as God’s children and worthy of love and respect.
OK, now the third part of the tree, the canopy of the upper branches and leaves. After expressing our positive NO, we not only honor and protect our own deep Yes, but we can then be open to another positive Yes in relation to the other. We can come from a place of self-knowledge, self-respect, and self-confidence to offer what is an acceptable agreement in relating to the other. Like those branches, we can reach out to the other, offering other possibilities, not this but that. I can’t go with you now or volunteer now, but perhaps I can reconsider in two months when my schedule changes. We can make an offer to the other person that honors our true connection or commonality with that other.
So there are three parts to a positive NO; a deep Yes, a specific No, and the offer of another possible yes.
Here’s how it might look.
A boss comes to you and asks you to work on Saturday on an important project. You know that this would score points with the boss and possibly advance your career, but you are also the coach of your daughter’s soccer team and promised that you would spend more time with her. What do you do?
To the roots: Where is your yes?
How does your career figure in what you want in life? Is it most important? Is family life and presence more important? Can advancing your career support your family life or have told yourself that before only to see it doesn’t work out this way? Maybe your boss has a way of using people in this way and doesn’t really come through or return the favor. While life is complicated and we might want to know more about how family is going in terms of money and relationship, and more about the boss and your history with her, let’s just say that you know inside that the thing you really know you want to do is to be there for your daughter and to coach the soccer game. You want to say yes to more family time. It will lead you to the life you value, to living out a value of children and family that you believe in. You may see that God calls you to human relationship more than money, and that you are called to respect yourself as much as the other person.
To the Trunk: Expressing your No.
Now you have to draw on the inspiration of connecting with your deep yes to family and to self-respect. This is the time to express your NO and say to the boss, “I can’t work this weekend. I have a commitment to family time that I want to honor.”
To the top of the tree: Another yes to the relationship.
Adding another possibility to the equation that would work for you and showing respect and appreciation for the other keeps the relationship open and keeps you from a negative no. It might sound like this:
“I can’t work this Saturday. I have a commitment to family time that I want to honor, but I really appreciate you thinking of me with this important project. I can hear that you would like to get it done ASAP. I know that the project is important for the company and I would be willing to work on it Sunday evening from 6-9pm. How would that work?”
How did that feel as I was telling it? Did anyone feel any butterflies in the stomach or anger when the request was made?
You may already see where this process is most difficult for you:
Mahatma Gandhi said
A ‘No’ uttered from deepest conviction is better and greater than a ‘Yes’ merely uttered to please, or what is worse, to avoid trouble.”
While there is much to learn of this process and more that could be said, I hope the tree image is a helpful way for you to remember and to identify your true yes and no.
Jesus teaches that it is important to have your yes be yes and your no be no, to be true to others requires being true to yourself. This is one Way to the Realm of God, to Beloved Community.
This, I believe, is what Jesus teaches.
This is the Path we are challenged to follow.
First, We Must BlessRead Now
Becoming Beloved CommunityRead Now
“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.
- - - - - -
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 email@example.com for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.