The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
The family I grew up in was very antiseptic about death. They didn’t like funerals…they preferred memorial services after the fact. They didn’t talk about death, and I’m not sure they really knew how to grieve and mourn. I knew something about that was not healthy, especially after my dad died when I was 25. About ten years later, I was a Stephen Minister at First Congregational UCC in Boulder and a first-year student at Iliff. I was paired with Roy Brammell, a delightful, wise man in his 90s who had been the founding dean of the School of Education at the University of Connecticut fifty years earlier. And when I joined the family to visit Roy’s body at the mortuary, as I saw his tall, thin body, and it struck me that this was an empty shell…that Roy was no longer there. To me, it seemed that the body and the spirit were no longer connected. The senior minister, Bruce MacKenzie, asked if I’d like to help lead Roy’s service, and I said I’d be glad to. For the service, Roy’s adult children collected some of the things he had written over the years on a wide variety of topics like citizenship, education, duty, faith, and so on. They took turns reading these heartfelt pieces Roy had written, and it seemed to bring Roy’s presence back, even to revivify his spirit. (And I started crying in the chancel, and I had no Kleenex…so that was a lesson learned…never lead a memorial service without Kleenex.) Roy’s community of faith gathered to offer thanks to God for his life, to send him off prayerfully, to remember him, to surround is family in a loving embrace, to “rejoice with those who rejoice and to weep with those who weep.”
Everybody has a story, whether we are homemakers or professors or deans or clergy or laborers or physicians or farmers or unemployed or businesspeople. God knows our stories…and I think it is a natural sentiment that we want others to know our story, and I suspect that we all want to be remembered. That’s an important function of a funeral or memorial service, or even of the bronze plaques honoring those buried in our memorial garden at Plymouth. Sometimes when I go by those names at the end of our gallery, I touch the bronze plaques, intentionally recalling the people named there, and I remember their stories and pray for them.
I have a strange affection for old cemeteries, especially those attached to Congregational churches in New England. Looking at the artwork and reading what people chose to record on gravestones makes me curious about the stories of the people they commemorate. One of my favorite cemeteries is at First Congregational Church in Kittery Point, Maine, where I served as the sabbatical interim minister during the summer when I was in seminary. It’s a beautiful location on the shore, overlooking the harbor where the Piscataqua River flows past Portsmouth, New Hampshire into the Atlantic Ocean. I did some gravestone rubbings when I was there, and one struck me particularly, and I have a rubbing of it hanging in my office. It is the headstone of The Rev. Benjamin Stevens, who lived from 1721 to 1792. Stevens had to walk a fine line during the American Revolution between Tories and Patriots, and in 1776, the wealthiest family in the church, the Pepperells, left Maine for England, never to return. (The church still uses the communion silver and baptismal bowl given by their patriarch Sir William Pepperrell.)
Everyone has a story, and here is what we know of Benjamin Stevens from his gravestone: “In memory of the Rev’d Benjamin Stevens D D Pastor of the First Church in Kittery, who departed this life in the joyful hope of a better, May ye 18th 1791: in the 71st year of his age and 41st of his ministry.
In him, the Gentleman, the Scholar, the grave divine, the chearful Christian, the affectionate, charitable & laborious Pastor, the faithful friend & the tender Parent were happily united.” With that eulogy in stone, Stevens’ story inspires me as a pastor 229 years later.
When Stevens died, a minister from nearby Portsmouth preached at his funeral, and accounts say that Kittery harbor was filled with boats from near and far, and that the crowd overflowed from the meetinghouse.
This is one of the things that churches do: we help to remember the people whom we have loved and who have died. We help to provide a ritual that helps those in grief to have a place to mourn with others, to receive love and support from friends and fellow parishioners, and to be the church for one another. And there is more…we offer prayers for those who have died. We commend their spirits into the arms of God, asking for them to be received “into the company of the saints of light.” Maybe if you’re young or if you’ve never had a brush with death, it may not seem terribly important to you, but when I die, I want someone to pray for me. A funeral or memorial service is more than a celebration of life, it’s also an act of giving thanks to God, who entrusted the gift of life to us.
As a church, we gather on this Sunday every year to name those dear ones who have died since last year at this time. It is a poignant and deeply meaningful rite that we observe. Year after year, we come together to name the names, to recall the people and their stories, to lift them up to God in a spirit of love and remembrance. This is another reason it’s almost impossible to be a Christian without a community around you. Even when we have to wear masks…even when we’ve used more hand gel than we could have imagined using in a lifetime…even when we are worshiping together via Vimeo, even when we can’t give one another a physical hug…we are here for one another not only for ourselves, but as the hands and feet, eyes and ears of Christ in the world today.
“Let love be genuine; … hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection…Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer…extend hospitality to strangers….Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another…and live peaceably with all.” Paul gives us a tall order, but I know that this congregation — even in the midst of a pandemic, even on the cusp of a divisive election — this congregation will be there for one another and for our community. I’ve seen you hold the light for one another when someone is experiencing the shadows of grief and despair. God calls us to be there for each other, and you do that with grace, openness, and generosity of spirit. So, let us enter a time of remembrance for the people we’ve loved and lost these past twelve months. Let us remember their stories, and let us hold one another in our hearts.
© 2020 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact email@example.com 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.
Isaiah 25: 6-10a
All Saints Sunday, November 3, 2019
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
25:6 On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.
25:7 And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever.
25:8 Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken.
25:9 It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the LORD for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.
25:10a For the hand of the LORD will rest on this mountain.
The poetic prophecy of Isaiah is set against the backdrop of the Hebrew peoples’ physical and spiritual devastation when a foreign empire conquers their country and destroys their city, Jerusalem. Families are pulled apart as captives are taken into slavery in exile. Their homes are torn down around them. There is death all around. It seemed as if God had abandoned them! Death had cast a shroud over the whole people. If images from recent news of refugee camps and the devastation of Middle Eastern cities are coming to your mind, then you are getting the situation of God’s people in this text.
Death is an “active force of negativity that moves to counter and cancel and prevent well-being,” writes Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann.[i] Death, in its many forms, leaves us feeling diminished and separated from God. Grief after death is not a one time visitor....it’s thread runs through our lives in many ways. As a chaplain friend of mine says, “There are so many little deaths in life – dying is just one of them.”
We most certainly experience the shroud of death Isaiah speaks of when our loved ones die. Some deaths are just way before their time and come with tragic circumstances. And even when the death of a loved one has been peaceful and comes naturally at the end of a vital, productive life we can still feel the devastation of loneliness and abandonment. We grieve many other losses in life..... job loss – relationship loss – loss of meaning in the midst of despair and depression – loss of community in moving across the country – the loss of a beloved pet. We grieve when we hear the news of violence against other human beings – gun violence, domestic violence, the violence of prejudice and injustices of all kinds, the violence of war. We grieve when we hear of and experience ecological violence against God’s creation. And we often feel helpless in the midst of grief, disgraced that we cannot lift ourselves up from the mire, that we cannot change the circumstances that caused us or others to grieve. We feel alone.
In all these experiences our hearts, our souls, long for companions in community and in the presence of God. We need those who will walk beside us, following our lead as we move through the sorrow, the anger, the numbness, the loneliness. We need companions without judgment, without time frames, or fix-it solutions to cheer us up. We need companions who patiently walk with us toward the hope of transformation. The best gift we can give someone in grief is simply being a companion.
The poet, Patricia McKernon Runkle beautifully expresses this kind of companioning in her poem “When You Meet Someone Deep in Grief.”
Slip off your needs
and set them by the door.
this darkened chapel
hollowed by loss
hallowed by sorrow
its gray stone walls
are here to listen
not to sing.
Kneel in the back pew.
Make no sound,
let the candles
In other words, just be. You do not have to fix. Listen. Or simply sit in silence with the one in grief. Your presence is the balm, the greatest “fix” you can offer.
The prophet Isaiah proclaims that our companioning God invites us to sit and be at God’s table of hope and abundance in the midst of grief and loss – in the midst of the many little dyings, as well as the big ones, in the midst of fear and devastation. At God’s table we are transformed by God’s companioning. God feeds us with love in a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines – or here in Fort Collins, maybe we should say, well-brewed beer. The prophet declares that God will destroy the shroud, the sheet of deep grief that is spread over all nations; God will swallow up death forever and will wipe away the tears from all faces. I believe that in the death and resurrection of Jesus who is now the Christ, the redeeming presence of God with us, death was swallowed up forever in an ultimate and cosmic way that is both mystery and revelation. And we can trust this mystery because of the new life that it reveals.
Friends, here in this community of God’s saints we endeavor to companion one another on the journey of life’s mystery that extends through and beyond physical death. God is our ever-present companion drawing us all together. As companioning community we are tangible evidence of the presence of God in all our lives.
You have been and continue to be companions of your pastors as we continue to walk through the grief of my son’s death and through the grief of Hal’s cancer diagnosis and treatment. You are with us in tangible and intangible ways, in prayers, in the mountains of cards you have sent. You are with us in the prayer flags that you made for me after Colin’s death. They hung on our back fence for at least nine months until I noticed early this summer that they were disappearing. I finally realized those darn squirrels were taking them. Irritated I went out to salvage what was left, muttering to myself, “Those were MY prayer flags!”
Then later that day Hal took me to our deck and pointed up. There in a very large, very tall, evergreen in our neighbor’s yard, way at the top of the tree, was a very colorful squirrel’s nest, made with prayer flags. They had been “transformed!” So they still companion me....and I hear Colin’s laughter each time I look at them. They assure me of God’s companioning presence that comes through you and through the beauty and surprise of nature.
The words of Isaiah assure us that God’s hope is as abundant as a great feast. And that the shroud of death is not the ultimate future. God’s life is the ultimate future. God’s presence offers transformation because God is the ultimate companion in the many deaths of our lives. God comes into the darkened chapel of our souls and sits with us as a congregation of one, listening to our grief. God sends us to one another to listen as companions in grief. And through our companioning we are transformed in our individual grief as well as in our community. Transformed to companion those here in Fort Collins, in northern Colorado, in our country and around the world who suffer the death-dealing forces violence, prejudice and injustice.
Even in the very real ache of grief we can say with the prophet and with conviction, God will swallow up death forever. God will wipe away all tears and take away the shroud of disgrace that covers the earth through human violence and greed. Don’t you want to participate with this companioning God in this miraculous transformation? The invitation is open as we companion one another through God’s love.
© The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, 2019. All rights reserved. Permission is granted to reprint Patricia McKernon Runkle's poem from her website: griefscompass.com.
[i] Walter Bruggemann, Isaiah 1 -39, (Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY: 1998, 199).
[ii] Patricia McKernon Runkle, “When You Meet Someone Deep in Grief”. The is poem is reprinted here with the permission of the poet. You can discover more about Patricia McKernon Runkle at her website, www.griefscompass.com and on Good Reads. Her book on her own grief journey after her brother’s death is titled, Grief’s Compass; Walking the Wilderness with Emily Dickinson.
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.
All Saints Sunday
Plymouth Congregational UCC, Fort Collins, CO
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph
Will you pray with me? O God, may the words of my mouth and the meditations, the artwork, the expressionism of all of our hearts in response to your Word, this Totenfest morning, be good and pleasing to you and healing for your people. Amen.
Last Sunday was Reformation Sunday when we celebrated the 500 years of the Reformation in the Church, so today it is proper and right for me to begin my sermon by quoting Martin Luther from his preface to a 1522 translation of the New Testament. In it he says of the Book of Revelation, “My spirit cannot accommodate itself to this book. For me this is reason enough not to think highly of it: Christ is neither taught nor known in it.”1 Martin Luther’s reaction to Revelation was not unique. Zwingli, another parent of the Reformation, also sternly rejected The Book of Revelation, although neither succeeded in removing it from the cannon. There is a reason for that.
This is one of those complex texts, not a comforting or easy narrative, not a story or a letter, but a volatile and even dangerous one when misunderstood or misused, which it often is in our time. This is because it emerged from the School or Community of John, but many years after the death of the Apostles and Gospel writers. Rather, it is attributed to a later John—John the Divine. Isn’t that an awesome name! We can surmise from the context, language, and historical references that in response to persecution, death, and even hunger. It is, by every definition, an apocalypse. As such, it bears the weight, the burden, the pain, the anguish, and the torture in the face of oppression, fear, and loss. It was written as a tableau of grief in search of hope for a community and a people in pain. An apocalypse in Biblical literature is always a response to a Totenfest of sorts.
Rather than reading the Revelation literally, for that is always a grave mistake with Biblical apocalyptic literature, we must hold it up to the light of paradigm, metaphor, and human experience… painted in words and story fragments. The Book of Revelation is the raw, pure, and complex experience of being human and facing death transformed into a non-linear story. Again, this book is a painting of grief and loss.
Speaking of paintings, how many of you have ever been to a modern art museum? If you haven’t, Denver has one of the best with the Clyfford Still Museum—which I recommend. Still was an abstract expressionist artist rooted in philosophy that kept most of his work as one ensemble and offered it in its entirety to any city, upon his death, willing to build him an art museum. Guess what? Denver did it. This museum inspired my sermon.
Today, in Biblical terms we are journeying into Scripture’s Museum of Modern Art. We are entering together into the literary space shared by John the Divine (author of The Book of Revelation) and the Bauhaus movement, abstract expressionism, modernism, surrealism, pointillism, and post-modern artwork. Saint John the Divine was the original abstract expressionist. When we encounter modern art, like encountering the apocalyptic literature, we must assume a couple of things:
1. Feelings and our responses matter
2. Pay attention to the metaphors, the colors, and the big picture rather than getting lost in the details—it is the composition that counts
3. It is in response to a world that is no longer explainable, relatable, and understandable with simple story.
Abstract Expressionism emerged in the speechlessness and horror of a post World War II world, much like the communities who wrote Biblical apocalypse. Pictures of flowers and stories will no longer do. We again live in such a world where words and images have reached their limit of rational expression.
I love this—I feel like I am teaching an art history class.
Put simply in artistic terms: When encountering The Book of Revelation, think Jackson Pollock rather than Rembrandt. While the Gospels and the letters of Paul are images we easily can relate to with story and personalities we understand (love 'em or hate 'em), learning to love the Book of Revelation is much like learning to understand modern or abstract expressionist artwork. It is not to be taken literally but symbolically and artistically. Again, think of Jackson Pollock rather than Rembrandt. Think of Salvador Dali rather than Monet. Think of Clyfford Still or Mondrian rather than Michael Angelo.
One of my professors, Dr. Carl Holladay, writes, “Counterbalancing [the] negative reactions [to it] is Revelation’s influence on the church through music and art. Some of the most memorable choruses from Handel’s Messiah are drawn from Revelation, even as it has inspired some of the most memorable works of visual art through the centuries…Its ‘Splendiferous [a great word… splendiferous] imagery’ captured the imagination of poets, artists, writers in every age and from every quarter. Any assessment of Revelation must account for this aesthetic dimension of the work and its lasting legacy.”2 When we read Revelation, we are called to respond with the creative side of our souls, which I know can push our limits as Congregationalists. When we read Revelation, we are allowed [given permission] to be artists dealing in the delicate space of grief, bereavement, loss, death, and finally the light of hope.
So I am going to read the passage for today again [while emphasizing the colors and imagery that emerge for me in my reading], and I want you to pay attention to color, to metaphor, and to what makes your heart jump: words, colors, phrases, etc. I also invite you to close your eyes and visualize the painting of emotions that John the Divine is painting with words. Let us be artists:
After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation [rainbow], from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches [green] in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels stood around the throne [gold] and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, singing, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”
Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood [red] of the Lamb. For this reason they are before the throne [gold] of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun [yellow] will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water [clear blue] of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
What do you see? How do you feel? We have had the beauty of The Book of Revelation, its powerful imagery, and ability to bring peace taken away from us by those in the Christian faith who want to interpret it as a literal apocalypse of the future and use it to draw fear into their followers. Rather, I believe for today’s reader it is painting an abstract picture of what it means to face loss and death for each of us in our lives. It is a picture of all our daily deaths and mini apocalypses.
Since there isn’t enough time to dig into all of the images, although I will point out the use of color in this passage for today, I want to draw you attention to just one image, one that I will point out is unique to the Book of Revelation, which might surprise us. So many of us, like Luther, say we dislike this book, but in it are some of the images we hold most dear in our faith and in healing ministry. This is an image that we know and see in popular Christianity, we have heard, but maybe we have not thought much about or located before in Scripture.
Verse 17: “For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd and he will guide them to springs of the water of life and God will wipe away every tear from their eye.” And God will wipe away every tear from their eye.
This imagery is unique to Revelation, and it is so important that it is repeated again in Revelation 21: 4, “‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
The word in Greek translated as “wipe away” is moreover only used to mean specifically “wipe away” in this way only two times in the whole Bible, and they are these two instances in Revelation. The Book of Revelation is unique in this motif and the intimate, kind, and lovingly familiar image of God here.
This is gut-wrenchingly intimate. Have you ever wiped away someone’s tears while he or she is crying, weeping, or morning? [Gesture to face to imitate the wiping of tears.] I mean have you ever reached over with a tissue and actually wiped away a tear? Or have you ever had someone else wiping away a tear for you? This is something that maybe some of us have never experienced. This is God at God’s most intimate, familiar, gentle in a time of great mourning. Here, at the conclusion of the Bible, we have journeyed from the Book of Genesis with a God or collection of gods (depending on how you read Genesis) who punish and don’t want names known or said, to here… here… a God who wipes away tears from a multitude too large to count. What a journey it has been. Here at the conclusion of the cannon, while often misinterpreted as a book of violence and misread by Evangelicals as an instruction manual for the end of the world, really it is an abstraction on the theme of loss and hope: contrasts and colors.
A God who wipes away tears is a God who is familiar with us. A God who reaches out with the comfort of touch is a God who knows and feels our pain. The tableau presented here in this abstract expressionist apocalypse is a complex image of life, death, pain and yes a glimmer of hope.
We find ourselves on this Totenfest or Death Sunday at the end of the Biblical cannon, in the midst of a confusing and complex artistic interpretation of the pain and the fear of an ancient people in a time that could not be explained with a story or a narrative or a letter or a poem. Only one genre will do: abstract apocalypse. We are offered something unfamiliar: colors, imagery—raw emotions of a community in free-fall. Yet, despite all of that, God comes through the dizzying array of colors, themes, metaphors and similes… and smiles, reaches out for our faces and again wipes away our tears.
I revel in being able to say this: Martin Luther was wrong, at least in this case. Today, only a week after Reformation Sunday, Martin Luther misses the point and the mark entirely. Revelation doesn’t point necessarily directly to Christ, but rather it paints pictures of the deepest struggles, fears, isolation, loss, mini apocalypses, and ongoing deaths and struggles we all face. Revelation paints a picture of grace and hope with color, with art, and with God’s hand reaching through the storms of the centuries past and yet to come to wipe a tear from the faces of God’s beloved one: you.
We remember those we have lost (our saints) friends and beloved. We also today remember the little deaths we all face every day when we know we aren’t living the lives we thought we were promised. When work is unfulfilling or political. When a child you helped raise and love, perhaps a son or daughter, turns and says something hateful. When we face loneliness and isolation. What parts of you/ yourself are you mourning the death of? Whatever the answer to these questions, God emerges in a revelation of hope in the midst of darkness to wipe away every every every every tear.
This is what I see for God’s people, for you, in the abstract expressionism of our reading for today from The Book of Revelation.
1 Carl R. Holladay, A Critical Introduction to the New Testament: Interpreting the Message and Meaning
2 Carl R. Holladay, A Critical Introduction to the New Testament: Interpreting the Message and Meaning
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph ("just Jake"), Associate Minister, came to Plymouth in 2014 having served in the national setting of the UCC on the board of Justice & Witness Ministries, the Coalition for LGBT Concerns, and the Chairperson of the Council for Youth and Young Adult Ministries (CYYAM). Jake has a passion for ecumenical work and has worked in a wide variety of churches and traditions. Read more about him on our staff page.