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 email@example.com for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
“Sharing is Who We Are”
October 9, 2022; Second Sunday of Stewardship
Plymouth Congregational, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
1 When you have come into the land that the [HOLY ONE] your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, 2 you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the [HOLY ONE] your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the [HOLY ONE] your God will choose as a dwelling for God’s holy presence.
3 You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, "Today I declare to the [HOLY ONE] [our]God that I have come into the land that the [HOLY ONE] swore to our ancestors to give us." 4 When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the [HOLY ONE] your God, 5 you shall make this response before the [HOLY ONE] your God: "A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, [a stranger,] few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. 6 When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, 7 we cried to the [HOLY ONE] the God of our ancestors; the [HOLY ONE] heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. 8 The [HOLY ONE] brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders;9 and God brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. 10 So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, [HOLY ONE,] have given me." You shall set it down before the LORD your God and bow down before the LORD your God. 11 Then you, together with the Levites, [the priests] and the aliens, [the strangers,] who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the [HOLY ONE] your God has given to you and to your house.
At the time of the story we just heard, the Hebrew people had been wandering, nomadic people for at least two generations as they came out of exile in Egypt following God’s lead. They were faithful people some days and others not so much. Sound familiar? According to this ancient, remembered story they receive an inheritance of land from God, land promised to their ancestors, that they are to share with the Levites and aliens. The Levites were the tribe of priests who had no land of their own to grow crops because they attended to the people’s covenant life with God. The aliens were those not of the twelve tribes of Israel. People who had joined them in their wanderings or people of other faiths – some already living in the land - or people who were immigrants. This whole story is about remembering to remember! Remember God who liberates and sustains the people. Remember to bring the first fruits of your inherited land to God so that they can be shared with those who are in need. Why? Because this inherited land belongs to God. And you, the people, belong to God. Therefore, the first act of God’s community is sharing. These were the Hebrews, God’s people, remembering and seeking to live out the justice and compassion of the One God they followed who had called them long ago, brought them out of exile and into a good land.
In our stewardship campaign this year we are remembering who we are after the exile of pandemic lockdown. We are Plymouth! As Hal likes to say, we are an outpost community of faith on the plains of CO furthering the kingdom, the kindom of God that Jesus announced is already within and among us. We are an interdependent beloved community of folks seeking to follow the ways of God’s Love we know through Jesus. We strive for simplicity of living and working together, yet we are also a complex community of intertwined relationships, passions, and purposes. Miraculously, the Spirit of the Holy comes along to guide us when lose our way, when we struggle, when we fail, as well as when we are at our best. As our 2022 Stewardship campaign materials tell us, “we were forced into a new era, a new way for us to be church,”[i] through our last three years of exile in pandemic protocols. Like our ancient Hebrew ancestors, we must remember who we are after exile and learn to live in a new land. Like our ancestors we stand at the threshold of a new life hearing the guidance of Moses of how best to live in that new land. Remember who you are, God’s beloveds. Remember who gave you this land. Remember to share.
Our stewardship materials invite us to remember through some salient questions: “What does Plymouth mean to you? How does being part of the community express your life of faith and your identity? How does this unique expression of God’s Realm speak to your greatest need and longings?”[ii] One of the things Plymouth is to me is sharing. I have learned so much about sharing and being someone who shares during my years at Plymouth. My favorite, and most recent example, is the Student Welcome Event we had in August to welcome and equip CSU international students and those in the Lutheran Campus Ministry Housing Security program. Our fellowship hall and north patio area was hall filled to the brim with household goods to GIVE AWAY to those students. Not to sell at some low price, but to GIVE AWAY! What a picture of the wealth of America that can be shared! With those arriving in our land with just a couple of suitcases of clothes or those coming to college as first-generation students from poor families with little resources! Most of us have so much stuff, my friends! And what a joy it is share! Not to give away worn out things to ARC, but to share things in our own houses that are barely or rarely used. Or to share goods we have the money to go out a purchase. Then give away something new! I watched in wonder as that day unfolded with the magic of smiles and gratitude. A microcosm of what could be in our world if those of us with the top 10% - 20% of the wealth would share more with those in need. Gift economy.
Opportunities to share at Plymouth abound! Through faithfully giving our financial resources through our annual Stewardship campaign, through Share the Plate each month, through our four yearly UCC special offerings. Through events such as CROP Walk and the annual Youth Sleep Out for Homelessness Prevention. Through the many, many opportunities to share the privilege of our wealth through the Mission Marketplace coming up November 5 and 6. Now then think of the ways you share resources of time as volunteers with Faith Family Hospitality and the Immigration Team sponsoring our beloved Afghani family, through volunteering for Ministry Marketplace! We are like a busy, bustling community of ants! Really! Ants “tell each other where food is, not hoarding individually, but operating on a principle that the more of them who gather food, the more food they will have as a community.”[iii] The more they have to share! And our community extends beyond these walls into the world!
Think of the ways your share yourself in relationship through Christian Formation book discussions and study groups, through volunteering with our children in Godly Play Sunday school, through prayer groups and fellowship groups, through helping with memorial service receptions and in the seasonal yard clean-ups and caring for the memorial garden. I could go on and on! Think of the ways you share yourselves in relationships with Plymouth and the wider community working for justice through our new Climate Action Ministry Team and our Ending Gun Violence Ministry Team. Our new Ministry Match survey and database program is empowering our ability to share ourselves in relationship, to quickly integrate people new to our community who want to be involved. (If you haven’t taken the Ministry Match survey, please do! You can find it right here in the bulletin insert! If you are new and not yet involved, click on the ministries you were matched with in your survey results to discover who to contact so you can get involved!)
We are like ants, gathering resources to share. We are also like trees in complex and life-giving relationship with one another. Think of all the trees that grow from common root systems underground as one being reaching up in many bodies – birch, ash, aspen, mangrove. Think of how oak trees wrap their roots around each other under the earth, thus surviving even hurricane strength winds. Think of the mycelium, the threading network of fibers that communicates between trees, particularly around toxic growth, and thus protects the trees from harm.[iv] We are sharing in ever deepening and intertwined relationships with one another that give us life and that also extend beyond our doors bringing life to the wider world. As the psalmist sang, we are like a community of trees planted by streams of living water, the living water of Love. We nurture and we share.
We are Plymouth! It gives us joy to share, doesn’t it! It’s okay to feel good when we share. However, we are not invited by God to share because it makes us feel good. We are invited to share because we are made in God’s image, with the spark of God’s Love divine within us. And sharing is the essence of God’s love. The Holy ONE is always sharing. Let us remember this when it feels scary to share of our time or talents or financial resources. We are part of God, so sharing is who we are
Sharing is who we are as human beings. In the very depths of who we are as human community. “Building community is to the collective, [the whole of humanity,] like spiritual practice is to the individual.”[v] It takes generosity and vulnerability to build community. This is what Moses was trying to teach the Hebrew people. Generosity means giving of what you have without strings or expectations attached.” Bringing our first fruits, not our left-overs. Vulnerability means [showing up] and showing your needs” so that even as you give, you can receive.[vi] How can we increase our sharing and strengthen the ties that gather us for new growth after exile? Through generosity and vulnerability as we gather like ants, telling others where to find bread of the earth and the bread of heaven. Through vulnerability as we are connected at the roots like trees, connected at the roots of our faith, sharing nurture, healing, and strength.
We are Plymouth. We have a God-given ability to share. We are invited, more than invited, we are guided, and directed to share. Sharing is who we are. Thanks be to God!
©The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson, 2022 and beyond. May be reprinted only with permission.
[i] Plymouth 2022 Stewardship Matierials
[iii] adrienne maree brown, Emergent Strategy, Shaping Change, Changing Worlds, (AK Press, Chico, CA: 2017, 86.)
[iv] brown, 85.
[v] brown, 88.
[vi] brown, 91.
6th Sunday of Epiphany
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson
Introduction before Scripture reading:
Today our text comes from the book of Deuteronomy, the fifth book in the Torah. It originated in written form from a Book of Law found in the reign of King Josiah during the rebuilding of the temple in the 7th century BCE. It holds traditions, teaching and stories that are much older. Deuteronomy’s teaching are cast as the final words of Moses to the people of Israel entering the land promised by God to their ancestors, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob, Rachel and Leah and their 12 sons. After 40 years of journeying in the wilderness the people stand on the brink of the Jordan River ready to cross over. And Moses delivers them a 26 chapter sermon of lessons, traditions, cautions they are to remember in this new land. At least according to whoever put Deuteronomy in written form it is 26 chapters. Our text is the very last paragraph of this sermon. So picture the people, very weary from the travails of more than a generation of traveling as immigrants, yet eager, excited – maybe with a bit, a lot of trepidations - to see what God has in store for them in this new homeland.
15 See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. 16 If you obey the commandments of the Holy One your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Holy One your God, walking in God’s ways, and observing God’s commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. 17 But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, 18 I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. 19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, 20 loving the Holy One your God, obeying God, and holding fast to God; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Holy One swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.
Choose! Choose, choose, choose, choose! Choose this day! I’m not sure my weary brain would be able to take all that choosing in! I hope my heart would be stirred to follow God’s ways....as we had been trying to follow – most of the time – since we left Egypt 40 years ago. Perhaps I was just a child then, barely remembering all the miracles; perhaps, I was a young mother then and now I am an old grandmother at the end of my life telling stories; perhaps, I had not even been born and only know the stories of the escape through the Red Sea, the manna in the wilderness, the miraculous water from the rock, the debacle with the golden calf and the giving of the Ten Commandments, only family stories.
The people who heard these words from Moses on that transitional day were of many generations and experiences, yet held together by the covenant of God’s promise of new life to their very ancient ancestors, held together by journeying through dangers, through tedious travel, celebrating births and deaths along the way, trying to stay together as a community of God’s blessed people. Our physical circumstances are very different from these ancient people on the edge of the Jordan River...we are not desert dwellers in make-shift tents, footsore and hungry, worn thin from travel and desert storms.
Yet our spiritual and emotional inner lives could be very similar. We are a community of many generations and experiences standing on the brink of this transitional election year. No matter what party or candidate we may support, we are heart-sore and weary, hungry for justice, perhaps angry, worn thin by the stormy tumult of our times. The people of Israel could look across the misty river and see the other side of the Jordan with real hope. There was the land that would finally be a their settled home. They had tangible reason to “Choose Life!”, to choose God’s ways for living. What can we look for with hope? What are our tangible visions? What inspires us to “Choose Life?”
In America, here in the middle class culture of Plymouth – upper, middle and lower – we are a people of many choices....how to spend our time, our money, our educational and work opportunities, what to eat for lunch or breakfast or dinner? We get to choose so many things! We have also learned to be suspicious of choices...what is in the fine print? Where is the catch? Is it too good to be true? To simple?
Moses says if you keep God’s ways, “then you shall live and become numerous, and your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. If you don’t keep God’s ways and you turn away to worship other gods, “you shall perish.” Pretty black and white, and on the surface it also feels retributive. Do what I say....get rewards....don’t do what I say....get punishment! Yikes! Does that make any of your little independent, think-for-your-self hearts and minds feel just a teeny bit rebellious? Or does it feel like being coerced by fear? Much too simplistic to trust?
I know as 21st century intellectual people we may react this way to this ancient text. However, today I want to bring you hope, not fear!
My friends, this choice was offered to the Israelites centuries ago and is offered to us today out of deep covenant relationship with the Holy One who demonstrates time and again in scripture and in our lives that God is Love and Compassion companioning us on the journey. Not retributive law and rigid rules that are hard to keep. The Holy One of Never-ending and Unconditional Love who offered this choice to the Israelites through Moses, offers us the same choice today through this ancient text. It is not a contract with late fees to pay if we slip up, it is a covenant of relationship built on mutual love. The Holy One is rooting for us to Choose Life!
Still we know from experience that even when we have tried our best to follow God’s ways of life, perhaps for years, perhaps all the days of our lives, that prosperity and happy times are not guaranteed. Bad things happen in our lives, even to the best and most faithful of people. Does this mean that God has reneged on the covenant? Not kept the promise? So why choose life when what we feel all around us it death? Where is God in the death? Where is God and God’s love in the midst of all of life?
Remember the Exodus story... how the people of Israel complained that they were starving; and they most likely were. God sent manna, bread made from the excretions of insects on the leaves of the plants, to feed the. They could have said, ”Gross! I’m not eating that!” But they trusted and it was good. When God made water pour from a rock because they were dying of thirst, they could have said,” Oh, No! I bet there is dirt in that water. We might get sick!” But they trusted and they were saved. When they turned from God to worship the golden calf, God and Moses were angry. Through Moses, exhortations they repented, chose life again, and God forgave them. God restored the tablets of the 10 Commandments to them – commandments that lead to covenant community and life.
Moses says at the end of his long sermon, “Choose Life by loving God so that you and your descendants may live!” Life and Love are the ultimate words from God. They are always available. The Holy One is always on the side of choosing life, even when we turn away and choose the habits of death. Habits of scarcity thinking, fear, anger, arrogance, greed. When we find ourselves in the midst of death-dealing situations in our lives....how do we choose God’s life and love? Because we may not be feeling it at the moment and we may be really scared!
Practical advice: first, take three breaths. Feel your feel on the floor, your hand on the table, the arms of a loved one who may be holding you. Think of the love of a community – such as this one – that has promised to reach out and be a safe place. Breathe again. Keep breathing. Then when the temptation comes to fall back on death-dealing habits or if you are bound by the terrible, traumatic pain that death-dealing situations can bring, say “Help!” Even with that one word of spoken or silent prayer, the Holy One who is Love and Life will honor your claim on the covenant relationship of love and life.
In the day to day frustrations and anger of our times, say, “Help!” Then still your heart with breath. Listen with your heart and your mind as you go about your day, as you work for justice, as you do simple and humble kindnesses, walking in God’s ways. Holy help will come. Help always comes. Through someone, through an idea, through an unexpected event, through an unexpected experience of beauty. Keep putting one foot in front of the other on the journey with the God who loves us beyond all measure. The Israelites were not free from trouble after settling in the Promised Land. They were not free from failure to follow the ways of God. They messed up royally time after time even to the point of occupation and exile. Still God, the Holy One, was always there offering the choice...”Choose Life...in relationship with Me....choose love and compassion and forgiveness!”
My friends, in these very tough times, breathe, feel your feet on the ground, remember you are not alone, God is in the midst of it all, say “Help!” and Choose Life!
©The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson, 2020 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.
Hal preaches on Deuteronomy 30:15-20.
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.