The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
I sometimes give people books that have meant a lot to me, and the one I’ve given more than any other is To Bless the Space between Us by the late Irish priest and poet, John O’Donohue. It is a lovely volume of blessings for many occasions, and they tend to be very evocative of what the spirit is doing within and among us. O’Donohue defines a blessing as “a circle of light drawn around a person to protect, heal, and strengthen.” I would also say that the act of blessing involves the transfer of love from one to another.
For more than a decade I have used one of his blessings when I inter the body or ashes of one of our members, called a blessing “On Passing a Graveyard.”
May perpetual light shine upon
The faces of all who rest here.
May the lives they lived
Unfold further in spirit.
May all their past travails
Find ease in the kindness of clay.
May the remembering earth
Mind every memory they brought.
May the rains from the heavens
Fall gently upon them.
May the wildflowers and grasses
Whisper their wishes into light.
May we reverence the village of presence
In the stillness of this silent field.
Those words of blessing are etched on a standing stone at the entrance to our Memorial Garden, and they may cause those who visit to read them and to offer a blessing on all those who remains rest here at Plymouth.
O’Donohue writes “In the parched deserts of postmodernity, a blessing can be like the discovery of a fresh well. It would be lovely if we could rediscover our power to bless one another. I believe each of us can bless. When a blessing is invoked, it changes the atmosphere.” And for me the atmospheric change is steeped in self-giving love for another, who receives the blessing.
I agree that we — each of us — do have the power to bless and empower one another. You don’t have to be an ordained minister to bless others, and yet we do so at the end of every service, offering a benediction, which is a blessing on you. In fact, benedictus is the Latin word for “blessed.”
We also ask for God’s blessing on animals, as we did a month or so ago during our annual service. And we bless things as well, when we offer a blessing over a meal or with a prayer of dedication for the offering each Sunday. In some traditions, only the minister or priest blesses the offering, but I shifted the litany so that it’s something we all do in worship at each service.
When I was doing my field work in divinity school with the Franciscan AIDS Ministry in Denver, I became acquainted with the writings of brilliant Jesuit from India, named Anthony de Mello. (He’s also the second Roman Catholic priest I’ve quoted in this Reformation Sunday sermon!) He had the amazing ability to spin quips and aphorisms –- as Jesus did –- that turn things upside down or cause you to think about things in new ways. De Mello writes, “We sanctify whatever we are grateful for.” In other words, we make holy whatever we’re thankful for.
Think about that in your own life: what are you grateful for, and how does your sense of gratitude sanctify it?
Will you spend a moment with me, close your eyes if you wish, and just think about what you are grateful for, and ask for God’s blessing upon those people, things, or aspects of your very existence. [pause]
“We sanctify whatever we are grateful for.” We might just as well say that we consecrate whatever we are grateful for. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the verb “consecrate” this way: “to set apart as sacred; to dedicate solemnly to a sacred or religious purpose; or to give sacramental character by performing the appropriate rite.”
In a few minutes, we will do that: we’ll bring our offerings and our pledge cards forward, putting them in a basket, and then together we will ask for God’s blessing on them. This is the same sort of thing I do when we celebrate communion, and I consecrate the elements by setting them apart and dedicate them to a sacred purpose. In consecrating our offerings and our pledges, we are setting aside a portion of our wealth (which is the stored energy from our labor) and we are dedicating it to the ministry and mission of this church.
I think sometimes it’s easy to lose sight of the idea that money is stored energy and what we are doing as we pledge is sharing some of that stored energy to further the realm of God in our own time and place. Each of us has set aside a certain amount of our stored energy and today we gather as God’s people to bless it, to sanctify it, to consecrate it. And the act of setting it aside and asking for God’s blessing makes it materially and spiritually different from, say, what we give to our alma mater or NPR.
Turning to Jesus and his interrogative conversation with one of the scribes in today’s reading, what does it mean in tangible terms to acknowledge that God alone is God, that we are to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength? That we are to love our neighbor as ourselves?
One of the ways that plays out for me is in the idea that we ourselves are to be a blessing. We are meant to be living, loving wells that pour out fresh, clear water for God’s world. And I see you doing that: by visiting those who are sick, standing up for immigrants and refugees, sleeping out for the homeless, listening to those who need counsel, creating a home for nonprofits like PFLAG and Laudamus and Prairie Mountain Zendo and AA.
One of our late members, Bob Calkins, a wise retired psychiatrist, would always challenge me when I got into more abstract theology by saying, “Hal, it’s all about love.” And I have a feeling that Jesus would agree. It’s about the love of God, neighbor, and self…and being a blessing.
I think offering a blessing is an expression of love of God, neighbor, and self. Interestingly, though, none of us just gives a blessing…we are also the recipients of blessing from God and from those around us. And when we focus on the blessings we’ve received, it results in gratitude. And then the process turns like a Mobius strip, such that we have been loved and blessed, and in turn we want to love and bless others, and the process continues.
I count myself as blessed to be in this community which does so much to love and bless others not just here at Plymouth, but beyond the four walls of this place. You are a blessing!
Thank you and bless you!
© 2018 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
 John O’Donohue, To Bless the Space between Us. (NY: Doubleday, 2008), p. 198
 ibid., p. 95
 ibid., introduction.
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.
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph
Plymouth Congregational UCC, Fort Collins, Colorado
Exodus 16: 2-4, 9-15
August 5, 2018
Will you pray with me? May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be good and pleasing to you, O God, our great chef and manna baker—who provides in the wilderness. Amen.
Isn’t it interesting when the stories we remember from when we were all kids as “Bible Stories” have almost nothing to do with the actual stories we find printed in the Bible? This happens so often! Christmas, Easter, Noah, Jonah… all are not what we expect when we actually read Scripture, but today’s story of manna particularly deviates from the actual text in the way we popularly tell it.
When we think of the idea of “manna,” we think of God’s blessings, of easy bread falling (pre-baked) from the sky, and we think of something appetizing, delicious, and obvious. We tell ourselves a story about ease, about answered prayers, and about grateful community living in abundance. All of these things come to mind with the utterance of the word “manna.” This is the myth that has been derived from our Scripture this morning: a myth of contentment and the image of the manna story looking something like a Panera Bakery counter. Croissants, banquettes, and pastries… O my! When we think of manna we think of fulfillment, but the real story is a lot less delicious. There is blessing and there is abundance, but it comes at a cost and it comes in the form of a surprise from God. God rarely behaves in the way we prescribe or expect. God loves surprises.
The reality of the story goes more like this: God leads the people out of servitude in Egypt and into an extended period of discernment, of wondering, of aimlessness and starvation (physical and spiritual) in the wilderness. This feels like a betrayal of the people by God. Have any of you ever felt betrayed by God? All of us have had that experience in some form or time. A job/ opportunity that wasn’t what you expected? A spouse who didn’t live up to covenant? A family member who died too young? A home that was flooded out or burnt down? That is the kind of feeling of “WHY GOD!!?” that we are talking about today. The Israelites have a rightful sense of frustration with God, and so they cry out for meat, for bread, and really for survival.
They wonder what all of this freedom and liberation business is about anyway when it only leads to death in the dessert! What is the point of being free is there is nothing to eat, no help, no sustenance? Amen? Often, when we tell this story as a happy narrative, we get mad at the congregation of the Israelites for daring to complain so soon after liberation, but in my reading of the story—they had every right to complain to Aaron (their minister) and to Moses (their tour guide). While we cast ourselves as Aaron and Moses in the story with a righteous indignation about the complaining, really, we are more like the crowd than we know! All of us for our own good, deeply personal reasons. It is only human to cry out, “Why God?”
What in your life needs a surprise from God right now?
What makes you cry out, “Why God?”
We are all Israelites in this story.
The people need food, need support, need manna. They took a leap of faith to leave Egypt, the Status Quo, the norm, “the way its always been done,” and now the new adventure isn’t providing better results as promised. They are tempted to turn back. The word found three times in this text, translated as “complaining” in Hebrew also means murmuring or nervous talking. If read in Hebrew, one can almost hear the people shaking. They are literally quaking in fear. What we find in this story is a people in the midst of confusion, starvation, and estrangement from God… all for good, valid reason. The repetition of that one word shows us that through Biblical form analysis. The repetition makes the text itself seem unstable.
We really shouldn’t blame them for being upset, for that is where it gets interesting! What is God’s response to our worries, our fears of change, our murmuring for our lives? How does God respond? Does God simply end the time of discernment and lead them out of the wilderness. No, God provides nutrition in the time and place of the unknown. This is where we start to learn something.
Aaron and Moses intervene with God, and God sends manna from heaven to sustain the people in the wilderness. Let’s look to the text because this is the part I want us to focus on this morning in our own time of great change: “In the evening, quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew [slime] around the camp. [If I didn’t know better, I would think that we were reading an excerpt from the screenplay for movies like The Fog or The Mist… its creepy!! We can call this a hermeneutic of Stephen King.] Anyway, “When the layer of slime lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flakey substance, as fine as the frost on the ground. When the people saw it, they said to one another, “What is it??” [Can be read either in a grossed-out voice or a fearful, trembling voice.] For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.” Bon Appetit! O Manna!
What is it? For they did not know what it was?
Friends, manna, relief, and God’s blessings in the wildernesses of our lives never take the form we ask for or expect. Additionally, the manna (the relief the new sustenance for the new emerging church) we are looking for might already be all around us, but we haven’t yet identified it as the bread of God. We haven’t named it manna yet. The solutions are here already, but we haven’t named them as our manna.
For example, we haven’t claimed the manna of the heart, mission-driven patterns, change-focused character of the millennial generation as manna yet. It has that potential energy to change us for good and the better! We likewise haven’t leveraged the full potential of data systems and online communication yet as manna for a new and different reality of church.
Sometimes, manna looks to us, at first, like bird (poop) shit. Yes, that is what the story shows—sometimes manna is not at all what we want—like an election that really wakes us up and alerts us to the seriousness of our cultural issues and apathy, like a rain on a wedding day that eventually yields rainbows, like church pledging pattern changes that makes us pay more attention to theology and mission than history and status quo. Manna is what we get -- not what we ask for.
This is such an important theological lesson for our time—maybe the most important! God is alive and active with us, but the manna we seek (the relief, the blessing, the affirmation, the resources) are already here, and we simply need to name and claim them as such. This is a tough time and a difficult process. The manna might not be easy to swallow or understand, but the needs of the people of God are being met in new and unexpected ways.
Here at Plymouth that means new relationship with the campus next door. It means new apartments being built all around us. It means seeing the changes in attendance as something to celebrate as church goes from a Sunday social sport to an everyday lived practice. The manna is here, and it is abundant, but it isn’t like the bread in Egypt. It isn’t the flesh pots of the 1950’s, 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s of the church. It is new and looks and tastes different.
Personally, as individuals, this might look like God having brought you a new friendship (potential manna) that still needs an infusion of time and care to nurture into the sustenance it might become for you. Institutionally, it might look like the process next month of implementing the new database portals for the congregation members.
One more note is that manna is also mentioned in the Book of Numbers in chapter 11. The story in The Book of Numbers picks up the story a little bit later after the Israelites have been eating the manna for a while, and it reads, “ We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; 6 but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at. 7 Now the manna was like coriander seed, and its color was like the color of gum resin. 8 The people went around and gathered it, ground it in mills or beat it in mortars, then boiled it in pots and made cakes of it; and the taste of it was like the taste of cakes baked with oil. 9 When the dew fell on the camp in the night, the manna would fall with it.”
So, two more lessons about manna that are different from our childhood remembrances. First, manna isn’t always exciting, and it isn’t delicious, but most importantly--manna and blessings sometimes come with hard work. Manna is like buying something awesome from Ikea, but then learning that you have to assemble the darn thing. Batteries not included. In Numbers we learn that the manna wasn’t pre-baked. In fact, the manna was simply a ground coriander-like powder meal on the ground that took the work of the community [again, the full and engaged effort and work of the community to turn from the preliminary blessing of God into something actually sustaining and useful.] Manna won’t save us, even in abundance, unless we do our part to make it into food.
Let me make a prophesy of sorts: God is sending manna again in our time. We are living in the age of the second coming of the gift of manna. The technologies that connect people offer so much blessing for community and the Gospel, but it won’t be easy. Thanks be to God! We are living in the age of manna, but the blessing and renewal and hope of God in our time and in the time of children and our children’s children won’t be easy, it won’t always be tasty, and sometimes it might appear unappetizing.
It takes work to transform the grains and flour from heaven into a bread of community and communion. It takes work of everyone living with purpose to overcome the wilderness places in all of our individual and collective lives. It takes coordinated work to identify, transform, and stomach the changes in our world and to bear witness to those changes as potential blessings rather than curses.
What is it when the nominating committee asks you to join or chair a board of the church? It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat!
What is it when a new opportunity emerges in you or your spouse or partner’s life? It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat!
What is it when we are asked to connect with the campus in new ways that change our normal relationships? It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat!
What is it when the church launches a new online portal for the church database (as we will be doing in September)? It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat!
What is it when a new and challenging neighbor moves in next to your own home [and immediately violate all of the HOA covenants]? It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat!
What is it when you are forced into conversations with conservative evangelicals or fundamentalists? It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat!
Isn’t it interesting when the stories that have become so familiar to us, still have something new and different, weird, and life affirming to teach us? It is weird, but O Manna, it is also reassuring that God provides manna yet today, yet in our midst, yet in ways we are still striving to understand! Oh Manna, I know, feel, and sense God is sending manna in this place here and now. Look around, find it, taste it, and live into the promises of God.
What is it? It is the gift of community grounded in the Word of God. Amen.
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.
Sermon podcasts (no text)