Plymouth Congregational, UCC
Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
Our scripture today comes from the Gospel of John…it is part of Jesus’ long conversation and prayer with his disciples at the Last Supper. words of instruction and love which foreshadow his death. We hear the historical Jesus speaking to his disciples amid the impending crisis of his arrest. We hear Jesus speaking through the gospel writer of John to a late first century Jewish Christian community that was besieged with persecution from other Jews as well as the Roman empire. And we hear the Spirit of God speaking through Jesus, through the gospel writer, to us on this May morning, to our 21st century Body of Christ, Plymouth UCC. Let us listen through the filter of our strengths and struggles, our gifts and challenges, our fears, our hopes and dreams for the opportunities of God’s work through us.
As God, our loving Father and Mother, has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept God’s commandments and abide in God’s love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from God. You did not choose me, but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that God will give you whatever you ask in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.
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.
Do you feel chosen by Jesus to be God’s friend? To abide in God’s love and joy in such complete fullness that it bears the fruit of transformation in your life and in the lives of those around you? This is not a life just for saints and holy hermits. This is the life that God has for all of us to if we keep commandments of Jesus to love one another. Jesus tells us in our scripture, when we love one another, heeding all Jesus taught us about love, we are his friends and thus, friends of God. This love is reflexive, reciprocal, regenerative. As friends of the loving God, we are empowered to follow Jesus’ commands to choose love.
After the death of my mom in 2014, I was visiting my dad and had time to talk with him about death and life after death and heaven. Many of you know he was an ordained pastor and preacher, a theology professor. As we sat in the local coffee shop in his little town in Missouri, he confessed to me, “I do not know about heaven. But what I hope is that after death I will learn to love as God loves.” Perhaps this is the aspiration that Jesus has for us, as he did for his first century disciples and friends. To love as God loves. What might that look like? I think that is the invitation here.
It begins with knowing we are “chosen.” I struggle with that. I’m just an ordinary person, one among SO many, why would God notice me? Yet Jesus tells us we are each chosen to be friends. The idea is bigger than my brain can conceive. I can only tell you that I had an experience this week taught me about “being chosen.” I sat down to practice, emphasis on that word for I am a true beginner, to practice centering prayer. I got settled and centered. Then our dog, Bridey, stuck her nose in my lap, right in my open hands. I tried to gently push her away and stay centered. She did it again with her big purple toy bone. Again I tried to disengage… she persisted and finally draped herself across my lap putting her face in mine with “kisses.” I think God is like this… choosing us time and again… in our face at unexpected times with love…that we might first see as distraction. It might even be in the middle of some spiritual practice that you think you should “do” to get close to God. God is always with us, sometimes distracting and disrupting like a loving, playful dog – or cat – calling you to love.
Jesus says that we become friends by keeping the commands to love. In the midst of this we know we are chosen. It’s a bit circuitous. Looking concretely to examples of friendship in my life…the most life-giving friends, those relatively few people that are my closest, most tried and true friends, the one who have been with me through the nitty gritty of life and have loved me through it all … I have found in true friendship I seek to take on the best characteristics of my friends. If we take on the best characteristics of our true friends in this life, then as friends of God through Jesus, might we take on the characteristics of the loving God who has chosen us? My dad longed to love as God loves, which is a huge mystery that we will never finish exploring in this life or the next. I wonder if after 80+ years of practicing friendship with God through following Jesus he was closer than he thought.
I am reminded of another surprising experience of being chosen to love as God loves. In the spring of 2009 I was chosen by the pastor emeritus of the church I served in Denver to be part of the Rocky Mountain Conference Global Missions Team mission trip to Venezuela. Very early on a frosty Sunday morning in April, I met the other nine members mission trip team at DIA to set off for Miracaibo, VZ to partner in mission with our Venezuelan denominational partners, the United Evangelical Pentecostal Church of Venezeula or in the Spanish acronym, the UEPV. After being prayed over and anointed with oil by this same elder stateman pastor right at the United ticket counter, we took off. During our layover in Miami we walked from our gate to the International Concourse through a large airport art display. In huge glass cases there were six-to-seven-foot-high letters made of brilliantly colored flowers, like something off a New Year’s Day Rose Bowl parade float. They spelled out, “All You Need is Love”… Prophetic words.
Late that night we were met at the Maracaibo airport by our Venezuelan partners, included their bishop Gamaliel Lugos. It was a swarm of joy as people rushed to carry our bags and help us into cars. Over the course of the next ten days people of the UEPV, never failed to amaze me with their deep and enthusiastic engagement with life lived in and through the love of God. They lived large in a country riddled with poverty and injustice. Their love of Christ was inseparable from their political commitment to building a new world of justice in their country. They lived out Jesus’ preferential option for the poor and they were raising up women as leaders, working for women’s rights. They seemed to abide in God’s love to such an extent that joy was their MO, their modus operandi, each moment of their lives. As friends of God, they literally lived by the motto, “we will struggle, but we will not die.”
The bulk of our time was spent in the small town of Ospino in the foothills of the Andes. We stayed in a guest house, but our real home was a few blocks away in the small house of Gladys and Omar Gonzales, who hosted each of our meals. They gathered teams of people to prepare meals for our group of 10 or so as well as 6-8 Venezuelans who came from several areas in VZ to help with the week’s designated work project and to worship with us in the evening. They fed us using fresh fruit and vegetables from the Gonzales’ open air market next door, grilling arrepahas on their George Foreman grill, roasting meat in their backyard. Omar and Gladys became for us un familia, family. They laid down their lives for us. You do not have to die for to lay down your life for a friend. You do have to open your heart so wide that life might not always be convenient for you as you offer hospitality and love to others, but it will be joyful!
Two things I experienced in VZ through the ministry of the UEPV opened my eyes and heart to an expanded vision of being chosen as a friend by God’s love. The first was the circumstances of our work project on the finca, the farm owned by the denomination in Ospina. It was not a working farm but more of a community center for ministry. It had two or three buildings surrounded by a large amount of land…that was growing increasingly smaller because of squatters, people so poor that they grabbed any small piece of land they could to build shacks and grow a few vegetables. The shacks would literally spring up overnight. The UEPV could have legally prosecuted these people who stole the land from the finca. But they decided it was part of their ministry of Christ’s love to let the squatters have the land, to engage them as neighbors and invite them into their God’s community. A sacrificial decision, laying down their lives for friends. Ironically, our work project was to help build a wall around the remaining land so that the UEPV could continue their work of community ministry. That was the stated project and progress was made, however, the real work was made manifest in the smiles, laughter, …the halting sentences of banter and praise for a new post hole just dug made across the language barriers. Often there were songs echoing across the field strewn with mangoes falling off the trees and the sound children playing an impromptu baseball game with the mangoes too green to eat.
The second experience was the nightly worship at Iglesia Pentecostal de Los Olivos, the local UEPV church. This church had been taken out of the denomination by a fundamentalist pastor. He was now gone and the church, much to the relief of most of its members, was returning to the denomination. Our presence was the catalyst to invite UEPV folks from around VZ to join in the celebration of reunion and to commission new pastors for the church. Pastors brought their people from little churches in surrounding towns to welcome Los Olivos back to the UEPV vision of working for the poor and women’s rights, for working ecumenically with other denominations, and for creating indigenous Venezuelan worship using their songs and liturgies. The love in the very lively worship was palpable and we were embraced by it. On the last night they actually commissioned our beloved hosts, Gladys and Omar as the new lay pastors.
Each night Bishop Lugos spoke, reminding us that God is not only with us, God is in us, abiding in us, just as we abide in God. At the end of the service he would ask us to pass the peace, saying, ”I Love YOU.” It was intimidating at first. I didn’t really know these people or even know all the people on the mission team well. I didn’t speak Spanish. Yet I had to plunge in saying in English, I love you, I love you, … in Spanish, te quiero, te quiero. And it wasn’t fake or mushy or overly sentimental or even awkward. I had for a brief time been in the nitty gritty of life, with these folks, meals shared, walls built, prayers prayed, abiding in love across the barriers of language and culture in God’s love. It was true and real. If we were all together in our Plymouth sanctuary I would invite us break out of our white, Protestant, intellectual selves and try this practice. I think you would find God’s love in your face as viscerally as the dog kisses that interrupted my prayer time.
My friends, I tell you this longish story today to invite you to take the risk of knowing you, too, are chosen by God. Reach out. Accept the invitation. It will take you to some strange and wonderful and hard places. And it will be worth it. What is calling to you through the ministries of Plymouth that will empower and nurture your friendship with God? Jesus says to us, “I have chosen you in God’s love to be friends of God. Keep my commands to love and you will discover, even in this life, in your heart of hearts what it can means to love as God loves.” Amen.
©The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, 2021 and beyond. May be reprinted with permission only.
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.
Acts of the Apostles 8.26-40
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
For me, this is one of the most memorable stories in the New Testament, not because it is about Jesus himself, but rather because it is about how his disciples — how we — can follow a path of inclusion. For many years, the UCC was nearly alone in working to include LGBTQ folk in the life of the church, and this passage yields some profound messages about welcoming those whom some Christians consider outcasts or untouchables. I remember following Matthew Shepard’s death reading a memorial sermon given at St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral in Denver by Tom Troeger, who was my preaching professor at Iliff. Tom told a story about being a little kid and his playmates during recess would link hands and form a circular human chain, and the game consisted of having one child outside the circle trying to enter the circle and the other children trying to keep them from breaking in, while chanting, “You’re out! You’re out! You can’t come in!” Have you ever felt you were kept outside the circle that you wanted to break into? Most of us have. Insiders are often good at keeping the outsiders at bay, whether on the playground, the workplace, in church or society…some people even build physical walls.
Imagine what it was like for LGBTQ folks to be rejected and excluded by the church of their youth…of maybe you yourself felt that exclusion. It is horrific and spiritually damaging. But what if the church decided to turn the tables when we speak of inclusion and of extending the love of God? What if we opened our arms wide and chanted, “You’re in! You’re in! Love won’t let you go?”
The story of the Ethiopian eunuch has become even more relevant in American society in the past few years with the wide media coverage of police shootings of African-American women and men and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. (You may or may not be aware that I’ve been part of a Fort Collins clergy group that has been working with Fort Collins Police Services for six years on issues surrounding dialogue, training, and accountability with our community. Overall, our police are doing things pretty well.) It is stunning to read of yet another police shooting or killing of unarmed Black men and women. The message from some quarters seems to be that Black lives really don’t matter. And you know that ISN’T what our text today says.
When Philip stops on his way to Gaza and hears a Black man, an Ethiopian, reading aloud (as was the norm in the ancient world) he stops and asks if the man knows what he is reading about. And the reason Philip does that is because he knew that Black Lives Matter. They matter to God and they matter to us.
You don’t need to look very far to find African people in the Bible. Whether Pharaoh, Simon of Cyrene, or the Ethiopian eunuch, Black and brown people populate both testaments. The Ethiopian eunuch was not untouchable because he was Black…he was considered ritually impure because he had been castrated. Though he was a court official and was educated, reading the Hebrew scriptures, the Ethiopian eunuch could never become a full member of the Jewish tradition because of what they considered his ritual uncleanliness. So, why does the author of Acts include this account? Why does the writer describe this scene of encounter, teaching, baptism, and inclusion? Jesus himself and his early followers replaced the centrality of ritual purity with the core value of compassion. This story highlights a great departure from our roots in first century Temple Judaism, namely that our religious tradition is meant to welcome the other, the untouchable, to be part of God’s household. That is our goal…as yet unattained.
God has work for us to do around compassion and inclusion. Our White sisters and brothers have work to do around examining our privilege and acting to dismantle it. We, especially White Christians, need to do a lot more listening to our sisters and brothers of color about how they experience the world. The Interfaith Council and World Wisdoms Project presented a powerful presentation on Zoom hearing the stories of people of color here in Fort Collins while asking all of the White persons on the Zoom call to mute themselves and turn off their video cameras. It gave others a chance to be seen and heard. (You can find it on the World Wisdoms Project website.)
Deep repentance, metanoia, starts by listening, hearing the brokenness of American history played out in millions of lives. It continues to transformation: changes of heart and mind, shifts in our patterns of belief and behavior. And it concludes in wholeness, both for individuals and for societies. Our nation can never be whole while the wound of racism remains open. And it takes people like you, like all of us, working together to make a difference. It’s in the way we raise our children, talk to our neighbors, lift up our voices, march where and when necessary, and vote to affect social change.
In October, you will have the chance to listen deeply to the Rev. Traci Blackmon, who will be with us as our second Visiting Scholar. She is not only our associate general minister for justice and local church ministries but was also the pastor of a UCC congregation in Ferguson, Missouri, during the shooting of Michael Brown in 2014. She knows of what she speaks, and I hope you will join us to listen and to learn.
You may know the passage from Isaiah the Ethiopian was reading: it is the story of the suffering servant from Isaiah 53. Let me read to you from that prophecy: “By a perversion of justice he was taken away. Who could have imagined his future? For he was cut off from the land of the living.”
How many perversions of justice have we seen in this nation in regard to our Black sisters and brothers since 1619? How many Black men have been taken away unjustly by mass incarceration? How many Black men have been cut off from the land of the living by miscarriages of justice in applying the death penalty?
We need to end perversions of justice. We need to work toward our goal of listening to, including, and advocating for “the other.” We need to work on our own racism, which is rooted deeply in American culture.
Christians of privilege, which includes most of us in some form or fashion, must work toward collective salvation. As Paul said, we must “work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” I do not believe that we are beyond redemption as a people. And I know that redemption of our history of racism will take lots of hard work and it will take generations. So, let’s keep on working as midwives, helping to birth the kingdom of compassion, inclusion, and justice that Jesus proclaimed. Let us not say that we are too weary…because “You’re in! You’re in! God’s love won’t let you go!”
© 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.
 Philippians 2.12-13
4th Sunday of Easter; John 10.11-15
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. -NRSV
The Good Shepherd is a familiar and comforting image for God and for Jesus. Oddly so, because how many of us have contact with sheep and shepherds on a regular basis? When I looked up sheep farming in America, I found a website, sheep101.info, with this information:
According to the 2017 Census of Agriculture, there are 101,387 sheep farms in the United States. Large sheep operations, which own 80 percent of the sheep, are located primarily in the Western United States. Texas, California, and Colorado have the most sheep.[i]
Little did I know…I am too much of a city dweller. Perhaps, some of you come from sheep farming families here in this state and you are more familiar with real sheep and real shepherds. I had never been up close and personal with them until I traveled to Ireland and Scotland in 2009. I found sheep everywhere as I traveled the country roads or hiked the moors and hills.
The image of God as shepherd is ancient in our Judeo-Christian religious tradition. Psalm 23, possibly composed around 1000 BCE, is so familiar with that many of us can recite it from memory. The prophet, Ezekiel, was prophesying in the late 6th century BCE. In Ezekiel, chapter 34, the prophet speaks for God, shaming and condemning the false/bad shepherds who have led the people astray. Then God says:
As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. … I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, …[ii]
You can hear the echoes with the psalm and with John’s passage. (Back to Me)The Hebrew patriarchs, Abraham, Moses and David, the young king, were all shepherds. It is in this tradition that Jesus says in the gospel of John, “I am the good shepherd.” New Testament scholars tell us that the Greek word “good,” kalos, actually has a larger connotation that just “good” as in “does a good job.” It means “model.” “I am the “model shepherd.”
As God is shepherd, so is Jesus who models the very essence of being caretaker of the people. As caretaker, as shepherd, Jesus is gathering God’s people together under the overflowing love and protection of God. Jesus, as shepherd, is willing to lay down his life for God’s people. Since our text is from chapter 10 of the gospel, you can hear the writer’s foreshadowing of Jesus death which comes in chapter 19.
The literary and theological metaphor of God and Jesus in God’s image as shepherd, of God’s people as sheep, of the threats and dangers to God’s people, can be spun out in many ways. A pastor could preach a series of sermons on this metaphor. The very word, “pastor,” comes from a 14th century French word meaning shepherd and is related to the word pasture, where the sheep are fed. So what do we make of God as the heavenly shepherd and Jesus, God’s word made flesh, the shepherd who laid down his life for the God’s people? Who are the flock, the sheep? All people? The church? If a pastor is the shepherd, are the parishioners the sheep?
Some folks would object to being called sheep because sheep have a reputation for being not so smart! I read in one commentary that this reputation comes from cattle ranchers. Cattle are herded by being prodded literally and vocally from behind. If you stand behind a sheep and yell, it will simply go around and get behind you. Sheep want to be led from in front. They want to follow the voice of the shepherd they know and trust or the shepherd’s whistle to the sheep dogs. It is only when they are ill that they follow a stranger’s voice. Or refuse to follow and wander off into ravines or fall from a height. I happen to know as a pastor that some people like to be led with encouragement from in front, and some people from encouragement behind, and some from alongside. So, the sheep metaphor is definitely not literal when it comes to people!
Here is what I’d like us to consider today …. if the Lord is our shepherd…if as Jesus says in John, he is the model shepherd who will willingly and with no coercion lay down his life for the flock…if we as the church are God’s flock – and I mean “we”, pastors included and not set aside in an elevated position – then, are we listening to the shepherd’s call? And if so, how? Because the shepherd’s call leads us home, even thru dark valleys to a place of care and rest, flowing streams of love and green pastures of food for our souls. It leads us away from dangerous pitfalls and into the safety of transparent and loving community. In these tense and fractious times, we need to listen carefully to God’ call to community as we worship, as we meet on Zoom, as we pray for one another, as we listen to the guidance of our strategic planning team. We need to do our individual work of listening so that God can be gathering and leading us all in community. We need to be assuming the best of one another in this exhausting time of pandemic when we all have frayed nerves and are glimpsing the light at the end of the tunnel but can’t quite reach it yet. Otherwise, we will be like scattered sheep, wandering off on our own. God, the protector and gatherer of God’s people is calling us together through the voice of Jesus and through God’s Holy Spirit to new and renewed community as we begin to come out of isolation into safe gatherings and as we continue to grow our work together building God’s realm here and now in northern Colorado.
When I was in Scotland in 2009, I stayed for almost three weeks on a tidal island, the Isle of Erraid, in the Inner Hebrides with a spiritual community connected to the Findhorn community of northern Scotland. This community lived in stone lighthouse keeper houses, working and praying together and offering hospitality to people coming from the mainland for retreat. It was early October. And while I was there the time came for the annual sheep round up. As I hiked the island, I had seen many, many sheep. In my inexperience, I didn’t realize or take note that they were all part of the same flock. They belonged to a shepherd named John who lived nearby on the Isle of Mull. It was time to gather the sheep for yearly inoculations and for the lambs to be sold at market. The people of the Erraid community gathered one morning to help the shepherd round up the sheep by walking the 462 acres of the island, hills and bog land and beaches, in groups that herded any stray sheep to the center valley where the sheep dogs and the shepherd could gather them safely into the flock.
Before we left, we held what they called an “attunement.” For me, it was prayer. We stood in silence in the lovely chill of the morning air with the sun just beginning to warm things a bit. Gradually people began to offer up affirmations, “prayers”. “May we all go in safety. May the sheep be safely gathered in. May the mothers be comforted as they are separated from their lambs for the first time.” I was in awe…a little stunned that we were praying for sheep and then ashamed that I was stunned. Why wouldn’t we pray for sheep as creatures of God and the source of the shepherd’s livelihood?
Then off we went. I ended up with a group on a high bluff where I could see and hear the shepherd signaling the sheep dogs. It was amazing the way the dogs worked at his whistling commands, amazing how hard they worked to gather the sheep into a safe group. Suddenly all the biblical shepherd imagery I had ever heard became clear. At that moment I saw the shepherd as the Lord of Psalm 23… I first thought of the sheep dogs as the pastors trying to gather the flocks. On further reflection, I think the sheep dogs are more likely the Holy Spirit trying to gather us all into God’s fold.
Suddenly there was a huge gasp from the group I was with. An older ram, had gotten itself out on the ledge of a bluff across the way from us. The dogs were working frantically to help the sheep turn around and go back the safety. A couple of people were on the ground below waving their arms at the sheep to get its attention. One was trying to find a way to safely climb down to the ram. But even with all this effort of care, the ram backed itself into a corner and then fell to its death. And there was an even bigger gasp as we watched it fall. And tears in the eyes of the community.
Eventually we gathered in all the sheep and walked them home by a path to the barns where the inoculations began and the sorting of the lambs from the mothers. The mood was joyous that the sheep were all home. And it was tinged with sorrow for the old ram that was lost despite all the care and the work of the shepherd and his dogs and the people of the community. It was a living metaphor for me of the real-life workings of God and God’s people in community.
My friends, I challenge you today: take another look at the Lord as our shepherd, at Jesus as the model shepherd giving all he has to gather the flock, at the Holy Spirit eager to round us all up. Our nerves are frayed from a year of pandemic and the turmoil of politics and racism. We are feeling our frustrations keenly. Yet we are being called home to our souls, called to rest in prayer after a long time of struggle and loss, called by God’s love to gather in love with one another. I invite you this week to re-read Psalm 23, perhaps daily. Read it slowly, resting in each image. Read John 10.11-15 slowly, prayerfully, letting the image of the Jesus, the model shepherd, willing to call you back home by laying down his life for you in the dark valleys, sink deep within your heart. Remember that the Holy Spirit is animatedly gathering us together as God’s people even as we are still socially distanced. (Back to Me) Remember, pray, allow yourselves to be led home in peace! Amen.
©The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson, 2021 and beyond. May be reprinted with permission only
[ii] Ezekiel 34. 12,15-16a
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.