“Becoming Beloved Community”
Isaiah 9.1-4 and 1 Corinthians 1.10-18
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning, Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
January 22, 2023
What brings you here today? What brings you to worship this morning in our pews or in our virtual balcony? Take a moment to see how you might answer that question. There isn’t a right or wrong answer.
Perhaps you are here because it’s a habit (a good one, I might add). It’s something you’ve always done and will continue to do. Maybe you are hoping for some insight that will help you through the coming week. It could be that you are here because you are in need of prayer and healing and wholeness. I would imagine that some of us are here to help, whether you are a deacon or you want to pray for others or want to provide a warm welcome for our visitors and members. Maybe some of you are here today because you want to be part of an intergenerational community. Others might be here because they are committed to following Jesus and bringing about God’s realm here and now and still unfolding.
In 2020 and 2021, our Strategic Planning Team came up with this purpose for our plan:
Plymouth’s purpose for the next three to five years is to embody beloved community with God, each other, and our neighbors. We will enhance our communications and deepen engagement within the church. We will be a visible force for social, racial, and environmental justice. This focus will help Plymouth’s already vibrant community look to the future and grow in numbers and in spirit.
“Embody Beloved Community.” Those are words that are rich with meaning. We embody it, not just with our minds or prayers or ideas. We enflesh the concept with our bodies and our selves. So, what does Beloved Community mean?
The term was coined about 125 years ago by Josiah Royce, an American philosopher who wrote, “My life means nothing, either theoretically or practically, unless I am a member of a community.” Royce observed that, besides the actual communities we experience on a daily basis, there was also an ideal “beloved community” made up of all those who would be dedicated fully to the cause of loyalty, truth, and reality itself. Royce founded the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a movement that was later joined by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. [from rejoicingspirits.org]
The kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed — where the first shall be last and the last shall be first, where we create new community based on following God and not Caesar or family or tribe or clan, where the poor are blessed and those who mourn are comforted — that is at the heart of Beloved Community. We should never forget that Dr. King was a theologian and a preacher as well as the leader of the Civil Rights struggle. Part of his prophetic word involves creating Beloved Community that is grounded in the idea of reconciliation.
I love big ideas like Beloved Community. But they need to be brought down to earth to be useful. Where does the rubber meet the road? Where do lofty concepts get put into the practice of everyday life? That is where things get interesting, because the interaction of human beings in community, especially when we attempt to form Beloved Community, encounter stress, difference of opinion, self-interest, tribalism (which may take the form of a generation or a particular perspective).
We can tell from Paul’s writing that the church in Corinth was struggling to keep Beloved Community cohesive. We hear from Chloe’s people that the unity of the Christian community was at risk. Some who were baptized were devoted to the person who baptized them (Cephas/Peter or Apollos or Paul himself), rather than to Christ. Even in the earliest generations as the church emerged from Judaism, there was dissention and disagreement, and Paul says they must be drawn back to the same mind and purpose.
That is a tall order for any church, because we human beings comprise the church, not saints who have reached the pinnacle of human perfection. Scripture says we’re a little lower than angels, but it fails define how much lower. It’s more like a group of people who start out with fine intentions who get a little squirrely along the way, just like Peter and Paul and Apollos. None of us is a Christ figure, but we are trying in the company of one another to live in the most Christlike ways we can. Does that mean we get it right? Sometimes. Often not. Do we put our personal comfort before our faith? I suspect we do. Do we let our egos get in the way of community? Yep. Do we consider our own self-interest before the interest of our sister and brother members? I think so. Do we let our fear of offending or hurting some keep us from speaking the truth in love? Yes, we do. I know that in every instance, I fall short, and I’m imagining that if you look honestly at your interactions with the humans who comprise this congregation, you might, too.
Here is some good news: None of us is called to be perfect. There is no perfect Beloved Community, rather a collection of people doing their best, challenging themselves to live differently, helping others in ways the culture at large won’t, caring for the people who form this community and for God’s world as a whole. I see so many of you providing concrete acts of caring, working for justice, doing behind-the-scenes work that make Beloved Community a possibility that we strive for. Well done. God bless you.
- - - - - -
Together, we have come through a horrific experience of pandemic and dramatic isolation. It has hurt us as individuals who grieve a world that is lost, and as we evolve as a community that has and will continue to be forced into living together differently.
I could never really relate to the Babylonian captivity of Judeans in the sixth century BC until living through the exile of the Covid pandemic. We couldn’t see each other in person, we couldn’t hug, we couldn’t eat together, we couldn’t sing together, we couldn’t work together. We had effectively been exiled from one another. And like the destruction of the Temple, we were deprived of worship in this place, our spiritual home.
It is hard to come out of the fear, the exhaustion, the grief, and the trauma of the pandemic. Together, we have been through a lot. Hear what Isaiah had to say to the exiles, long before their release: “There will be no gloom for those who were in anguish….The people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light and on those who lived in a land of deep darkness, upon them the light has shined.” That is a beautiful vision of the future, but it doesn’t take into account that the exiles had to go through a liminal space, a threshold between what was and what is yet to become. And like a rough landing at DIA, there is always some turbulence in the threshold space between where we are and where we will land.
We are in such a threshold time, my beloved friends. We see glimmers of what is up ahead, but we still feel the weight of what we have come through. Let’s take a moment to acknowledge what we have come through together, and let us ask God to be our seatbelt in times of turbulence. <pause>
How have you been able to connect with your Beloved Community at Plymouth over the past three years? I know that some of our folks are dedicated worshippers in our virtual balcony! Others have opted out of worship, and some have found other communities in which to practice their faith. And we have had some dear ones who have died or moved away. At the same time, a lot of new folks are finding a spiritual home at Plymouth. We are embodying church in very different ways that we did only a few years ago.
And there are more changes on the way in our congregation. In the coming months we are going to have a big shift in our pastoral staff. JT will be finishing up his interim work on February 28 after serving with us for 16 months. I hear appreciation from you about JT’s preaching and his way of being with you, for his work on helping to get our Ministry Match program set up. And I can tell you that his ministry here has meant a lot to me and to members of the staff who have come to love him as a colleague and a friend. Also on February 28, we will be saying farewell and happy retirement to Jane Anne Ferguson who has been our associate minister for the past seven years (and several months as sabbatical interim before that). Jane Anne’s wonderful voice in the pulpit and in Christian Formation will be dearly missed. It is really important for the congregation to celebrate the ministry of these two servants of God who have worked in our midst so effectively, and that will happen in February, so stay tuned. An important part of threshold time is saying goodbye well.
And next Sunday you will hear a new voice from the pulpit! Marta Fioriti is the candidate our Search Committee is putting forward to become our settled associate minister. I’m excited to have you meet her next weekend! I invite you to keep Marta in prayers for this coming weekend. And important part of threshold time is saying hello well.
This big, simultaneous pastoral transition is going to be difficult for many of us. It’s going to be a challenging time for our staff and for me, too. We’re likely to hold the grief of saying goodbye to JT and Jane Anne simultaneously with the excitement of welcoming Marta. It is perfectly okay to feel a mix of emotions. That’s also in the nature of threshold times.
And it’s really important that we remember the message of Chloe’s community: this isn’t JT’s church or Jane Anne’s church or Hal’s church or Marta’s church. It has always been and will continue to be the church of Jesus Christ.
This threshold also presents all of us with the opportunity to hone our Beloved Community skills, sharing with one another in all the ways we can, being open, available, and vulnerable to all those we can, to practice self-giving love with one another, to be generous in spirit both with ourselves and with one another.
Beloved Community isn’t easy. It isn’t automatic. It has very little in common with consumer culture fixed on “me” and “mine.” It takes practice. I’m going to leave you this morning with a quote from Rumi, the Sufi mystic of the 13th century. I think it relates well to the ways we work together to embody Beloved Community. He said, “To find the Beloved, you must become the Beloved.”
May it be so. Amen.
© 2023 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact email@example.com for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
Organizing Around Joy
Isaiah 35.1,3-10 and Matthew 11.1-6
December 11, 2022; Third Sunday in Advent
Plymouth Congregational, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
1The desert and the dry land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom like the crocus. … 3Strengthen the weak hands, and support the unsteady knees. 4Say to those who are panicking: "Be strong! Don't fear! Here's your God, coming with [requital, recompence, redemption]; with divine [justice and restoration] God will come to save you." 5Then the eyes of the blind will be opened, and the ears of the deaf will be cleared. 6Then the lame will leap like the deer, and the tongue of the speechless will sing. Waters will spring up in the desert, and streams in the wilderness. 7The burning sand will become a pool, and the thirsty ground, fountains of water. … 8A highway will be there. It will be called The Holy Way. The unclean won't travel on it, but it will be for those walking on that way. Even fools won't get lost on it; 9no lion will be there, and no predator will go up on it. None of these will be there; only the redeemed will walk on it. 10The LORD's ransomed ones will return and enter Zion with singing, with everlasting joy upon their heads. Happiness and joy will overwhelm them; grief and groaning will flee away. - Bible, Common English. CEB Common English Bible with Apocrypha - eBook [ePub] (Kindle Locations 27681-27706).
1When Jesus finished teaching his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in their cities. 2Now when John heard in prison about the things the Christ, [the Messiah, the Human One] was doing, he sent word by his disciples to Jesus, asking, 3"Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?" 4Jesus responded, "Go, report to John what you hear and see. 5Those who were blind are able to see. Those who were crippled are walking. People with skin diseases are cleansed. Those who were deaf now hear. Those who were dead are raised up. The poor have good news proclaimed to them. 6 Happy are those who don't stumble and fall because of me." - Bible, Common English. CEB Common English Bible with Apocrypha - eBook [ePub] (Kindle Locations 38242-38249).
In the ancient traditions of Advent today is “Gaudete Sunday.” Gaudete, the Latin word meaning “Rejoice!” This is the Sunday of rejoicing! Rejoicing even when we see so many shadows of sadness and grief in our world. We light the candle of Joy in the face of sadness and grief. Not because we are denying the sadness and grief, but because we know a bigger story. We know this story because of the testimonies of our ancestors in faith, like the prophet, Isaiah, because of the life and love of our pioneer and perfecter of faith, Jesus of Nazareth.
Isaiah and Jesus knew the bigger, resilient story of the Holy ONE’s presence and work in the world. With his people Isaiah was facing a world going up in flames as the Babylonians attacked and conquered neighboring countries, threatened Israel, eventually conquering it as well. The chapter preceding the joyful one we just heard together is dire, full of doom. It reminds me what we hear from climate change activists. Dire and immediate warnings…. and necessarily so! May we listen and act accordingly! It reminds me of what we hear and see from Ukraine and other war-ravaged nations in our world community. The devastations that we human beings wreak upon one another. May we listen and respond compassion! I am also reminded of the first stanza of the poem that is the centerpiece of our Advent devotional for this third week. It is Maya Angelou’s poem, “Just Like Job.”
My Lord, my Lord,
Long have I cried out to Thee
In the heat of the sun,
The cool of the moon,
My screams searched the heavens for Thee.
When my blanket was nothing but dew,
Rags and bones
Were all I owned,
I chanted Your name
Just like Job.[i]
In the face of all this grief and sadness and destruction, hearing and living the promises of God from the prophet in Isaiah is a stronghold and refuge. “Be strong! Don't fear! Here's your God, coming with [requital, recompense, and redemption]…” Healing will happen, the blind will see, the lame walk, the earth will be healed with streams of living water and the desert will bloom! There is a highway called the Holy Way to walk towards healing, a way to walk in healing. Even fools will see the way! Happiness and joy will overwhelm; grief and groaning will flee away.”
We also take heart from Jesus’ words in Matthew chapter 11, echoing the ancient prophets, Isaiah and Malachi. John the Baptizer sends him a probing question from the depths for a prison cell. “Are you really the One sent from God? “Jesus says to John’s disciples who are the messengers of the question, “Go, report to John what you hear and see.” (Notice, not who you think I am or might be, but what do you see happening in the world!) “Those who were blind are able to see. Those who were crippled are walking. People with skin diseases are cleansed. Those who were deaf now hear. Those who were dead are raised up. The poor have good news proclaimed to them.” Trust what you see and hear. Happy are those, says Jesus, who do not stumble because they second guess what they are seeing and hearing. They trust.
Jesus reminds John that dire times have been upon God’s people before, yet God brings a resilient cycle of redemption and renewal. God’s kin-dom is now and in coming and will continue to come! There is joy even in the midst of dire times. Look for it! Recognize it! Rejoice! God’s work in the world is full of joy and it is resilient. The Merriam Webster dictionary tells us that resilience is: “The ability to become strong, healthy, or successful again after something bad happens. The ability of something to return to its original shape after it has been pulled, stretched, bent, etc. An ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change.” Justice activist, Corina Fadel speaks about resilience like this: “The way water knows just how to flow, not force itself around a river rock; then surely I can stretch myself in the shape my own path is asking of me.”[ii]
These reflections on resilience spark in me in a quiet, confident joy as I consider them with the words of Isaiah and Jesus. When bad things happen, when life goes awry, when we are faced with sadness and grief, we push back and say, “No!” “No, life! You are not doing this to me! How can I escape? How can I make this go away? I must resist!” We hurt. We are angry! Normal reactions to abnormal situations. We can, we must, acknowledge the sadness and grief before we can move further. And in the pain, the Holy invites us to sit listening for God. Waiting is not easy. But neither is resisting and refusing to listen. We wait for God, as we are waiting in this dark time of year for longer days to return. I have found that in the waiting and listening something new begins to happen, something news comes slowly, but surely. Living water bubbles up from the dry places of my soul. I learn to see again, to walk again in confidence with God. To find that highway in the desert that even fools cannot miss. And my heart can begin again to organize itself around joy.
The pain might still be there…. but it is now living alongside new life, new growth. When we stay in resistance to the pain, I am stuck in a soul-sucking quagmire. When we stop struggling against it, feel it, acknowledge it, listen quietly to it and to Spirit, then we can see and hear that the desert blooms again, there is new life even in the face of death and joy comes in the morning. Our soul can flow in and around the pain like water over river rocks. We can stretch ourselves with God’s love and compassion into the shape that our paths are asking us to take. Joy comes. Not an easy happiness that depends on circumstances, but joy that runs deep at a soul level.
Maya Angelou knows this cycle of resilience. Quoting her poem again, “Just Like Job,” she sings with the psalmists of old,
O Lord, come to Your child.
O Lord, forget me not.
You said to lean on Your arm...
The wonderful word of the Son of God. [iii]
Joy co-exists with sorrow, writes the late priest, teacher and soul-work author, Henri Nouwen, “because it is the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing - sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death — can take that love away.” [iv] That can be a tough to trust, can’t it? The world does not often run on unconditional anything, much less love. Everything has a price, doesn’t it?
Yet this is the miracle love of Christmas. God’s unconditional love comes in the baby, the Christ Child, God-with-us in the flesh in the world. God’s love is vulnerable. It invites our love. It grows into the powerful message and model of Jesus who lived God’s love even unto death and beyond.
On the path of Advent, we wait and listen in these darkened times. We wait for the time when we celebrate once again the resilience of God’s love made human. We wait for the light to break through in Hope, Peace and now, today, in joy. Joy, that deep well-spring of Love that fuels the realm of God on earth. Joy that comes in the face of, co-exists with, sadness, pain, and grief. Joy is what we can organize our hearts and minds and lives around as we make our way in the world walking Holy highways of justice-seeking, of kindness, of compassion to make God’s realm visible wherever we might be.
With Maya Angelou, let us cry out to the Holy One, saying,
….I’m stepping out on Your word.
I’m stepping out on Your word.
Into the alleys
Into the byways
Into the streets [poem here]
Friends of God gathered here this morning … let us step out on God’s word this day, Joy!
©The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, 2022 and beyond. May be reprinted only with permission.
[i] Maya Angelou, The Complete Poetry, (Random House, New York NY: 2015, 168.) Read poem here.
[ii] adrienne maree brown, Emergent Strategy, Shaping Change, Changing Worlds, (AK Press: Chico, CA, 2017, 123.)
[iii] Angelou, 168-169.
[v] Angelou, 169.
An Advent sermon related to Isaiah 11:1-9 and Dalai Lama quote on peace
To uplift the unexpected possibility/emergence of peace
and to connect it with the realization of justice.
Isaiah 11:1-9 (The Inclusive Bible)
Then a shoot will sprout from the stump of Jesse;
From Jesse’s roots, a branch will blossom.
2 The spirit of YHWH will rest on you,
a spirit of wisdom and understanding,
a spirit of counsel and strength,
a spirit of knowledge and reverence for YHWH.
3 You will delight in obeying YHWH,
And you won’t judge by appearances,
or make decisions by hearsay.
4 You will treat poor people with fairness
and will uphold the rights of the land’s downtrodden;
With a single word you will strike down tyrants,
With your decrees you will execute evil people.
5 Justice will be the belt around this your waist
faithfulness will gird you up.
6 Then the wolf will dwell with the lamb;
And the leopard will lie down with the young goat;
the calf and the lion cub will graze together,
and a little child will lead them.
7 The cow will feed with the bear;
their young will lie down together;
The lion will eat hay like the ox.
8 The baby will play next to the den of the cobra,
and the toddler will dance over the viper’s nest.
9 There will be no harm, no destruction anywhere
in my holy mountain,
for as the water fills the sea,
so the land will be filled with the knowledge of YHWH.
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.
In January of 1915, in Great Britain, the Wellington Journal & Shrewsbury News published a letter of a British military officer. Captain Robert Patrick Miles wrote home on Christmas Day from the Great War’s trenches, the front lines of World War I. He wrote:
We are having the most extraordinary Christmas Day imaginable. A sort of unarranged and quite unauthorized but perfectly understood and scrupulously observed truce exists between us and our friends in front. … The thing started last night – a bitter cold night, with white frost – soon after dusk when the Germans started shouting 'Merry Christmas, Englishmen' to us. Of course, our fellows shouted back and presently large numbers of both sides had left their trenches, unarmed, and met in the debatable, shot-riddled, no man's land between the lines. Here the agreement – all on their own – came to be made that we should not fire at each other until after midnight tonight. The men were all fraternizing in the middle … and swapped cigarettes and lies in the utmost good fellowship. Not a shot was fired all night.
The letter was published posthumously.
Captain Miles was killed 5 days after he wrote this letter on December 30, 2014.
Unexpected peace broke out that Christmas during the First World War.
The tragic fact that it did not last is, of course, reason for deep disappointment, sadness, and grief. Yet, the fact that this unexpected peace occurred is soul food for our imaginations. It is manna in the wilderness of violence and violent expectations. The story’s unexpectedness, the fact that we call it that, unexpected, points to the expectation of a lack of peace in our collective imaginations and even the cynicism that can make a home in our hearts, especially in the light of mass shootings like Club Q in Colorado Springs, King Soopers in Boulder, others around the country, and in light of the Jan. 6th insurrection at the Capitol building.
Yet, the prophetic voice we hear in the passage from Isaiah this morning has no such limitation of imagination and expectation. Isaiah’s prophetic poetic imagination offers a vision, a hope, even an expectation for his people who stand in their time also amidst the darkness of deportations and war. Even in such a time, the prophet Isaiah offers a vision of peace that comes about by justice. In this case, justice brought by an ideal sovereign whose connection to God imbues humility, wisdom, compassion, and a sense of equity. Amidst these qualities, there is a reconciliation in the land so profound that even the lion shall lay down with the lamb.
In the story I shared, the War to End All Wars resumed and Captain Miles was killed because, of course, nothing changed in the systems in which these humans lived. No policies or orders were changed, no heartfelt connection and conversation was had by the warring nations’ leaders. They would not make room in their imaginations for another vision. These leaders, and many of their citizens, were prisoners of their limited sense of self and of the other, captives of their nationalistic, competitive worldview and its expectations.
As a Peace with Justice church nationally and here locally at Plymouth United Church of Christ, we uplift an understanding that what makes for peace are conditions of justice.
The Dalai Lama said it this way:
Peace, in the sense of the absence of war, is of little value to someone who is dying of hunger or cold. It will not remove the pain of torture inflicted on a prisoner of conscience. It does not comfort those who have lost their loved ones in floods caused by senseless deforestation in a neighboring country. Peace can only last where human rights are respected, where the people are fed, and where individuals and nations are free.
Indeed, what makes for justice are peaceful actions of justice-making by peace-filled nonviolent people like Rosa Parks, Dolores Huerta, Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez, and like First Nation youth and elders at the Standing Rock Reservation a few years ago. And many unnamed others. All of these people made room for a dream of peace based in justice, made room in their imaginations in such a way as it led them into actions for that vision of Just Peace.
This also can be the case in our personal lives where our conscious imaginations fail us and we set expectations, often unconscious, based on our internalized family systems that demean or inflate ourselves and/or the other, that make no room for a new vision of what might be possible, of making a way to inner peace and healing, unexpected though it might be. In that world of habitual confinement and conflict, there is no room for imagining reconciliation of lion and lamb, no room for the advent of a light of peace amidst that darkness. The status quo expectations of our internalized family system and the status quo expectations of culture and history can and often do keep us captive.
Is it too much for us to make room for a story like the Christmas truce of 1914, to make room for something unexpected, something beyond our usual expectations of age or situation or personal or historical habit?
Is Isaiah an unrealistic dreamer with all his lion and lamb talk?
Are such stories and visions all just wishy-washy, touchy feely, cotton candy Christmas talk?
Dr. King and others didn’t think so.
Their communities of faith trusted Isaiah’s prophetic vision of an unexpected peace, let it embolden their prophetic imagination. Then they directed their hopes and charted their actions toward that unexpected vision of a just peace, even as they waited for it amidst the darkness of injustice.
“You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.”
When John Lennon penned his lyric for Imagine and said he imagined no religion, no possessions, no heaven and hell, he was naming the toxic forms of religion and possession that limit us, divide us, and lead us to injustice and violence. Indeed, we are better off without them. He was encouraging us, from the darkness of our limited cultural expectations, to imagine differently, to make room for an unexpected vision of how there could be peace.
As we now come together at the Banquet table of God, let us faithfully imagine differently, like Isaiah, and make room for an unexpected coming of peace. AMEN.
Ser13nv22FC.doc “A Vision Worth Living” -1- November 13, 2022
Lection: Isaiah 65:17-25
First off, I want to thank Hal for one last opportunity to preach before we head home at the end of the month. I want to thank him as well for the opportunity to be here during his sabbatical for the second time. It is such a gift to serve in the place of a deeply respected colleague for a time, and to be subsidized to spend time with our grandchildren in such a beautiful setting. Charnley and I are deeply grateful!
Hal asked me to summarize my time with you these last few months and to share my observations on the life of this congregation of God’s people. I don’t believe he thinks I’m an expert, but just in case you might think that, I looked up some definitions of an expert and found these: an expert is a has-been drip under pressure. That’s not a bad description I suppose, but I like this one better: an expert is anyone from out of town.
Both of those definitions are helping me stay humble this morning. They remind me that my role has been to serve, and to observe, but most importantly to walk beside the people of Plymouth on a journey with Jesus. That’s all of you and so I want to thank you all for your patience and your kindness and for the privilege of working with your amazing staff and lay leaders during Hal’s sabbatical time. As you know, your ministry team will be evolving in the next months with the search for a new Associate underway and with Jane Anne’s retirement and with JT continuing his leadership journey. Let me comment on your staff. I have worked on and led church staff teams for a long time. This staff works together with respect and affection for one another. I have never served with a team where so much positive energy and spirit are present. Hal built this team, and his leadership will continue to build as the team evolves in the coming months.
As most of you know, I think, congregations in our tradition are lay led. As clergy, we serve as pastors and teachers, as coaches and advisers, and with the other members of the staff, support and facilitate the real leadership. That is your elected leadership team of three Moderators, past, present, and coming, your leadership council, your boards and ministry groups and lots of engaged volunteers. They, along with all of you, are the real heart of this congregation and their creativity and willingness to volunteer makes all that happens here possible. It is a sign of a congregation’s true strength, that the ministers, and especially the Senior minister, are often surprised by the level of activity and commitment going on in the life of the congregation. It has been a joy to behold.
Watching the Deacons every Sunday, observing the sound team, being in a building so well maintained by Trustees and volunteers who care, standing in awe of the team that led the Mission Marketplace and those who fill our worship with music and those groups that do so much in this community that brings to life the love of Jesus. I find myself wanting to dance with joy and thankfulness for this local incarnation of love called Plymouth. I am so pleased that in a world that is scary, my grandchildren are surrounded by a faith community like this one.
Let me make some specific observations and some generalized recommendations, after all, I am an expert, so you probably expect that, but I want to connect my thoughts with a specific text from the prophet Isaiah.
Isaiah is a complicated book that is really the patched together words of three or four different prophets who lived over the course of the two hundred years from about 700 until 500 years before Jesus. Some of these words, molded by tradition, have come to be associated with the birth of Jesus the Messiah. Some of these words remind us of the Christmas story, or as words of promise about a time when God will end history with peace and justice for all. These words are visionary words of power and beauty that make what I am going to say seem a little mundane, but one of the things I believe with my whole heart, is that if you want to build the "kindom" of God, you need to name it and claim it and live that promise with all the strength you can muster, right where you are. As the Wendell Berry poem I shared a couple of weeks ago said: “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts,"
This congregation and every congregation I know anything about has emerged from and may continue to exist in a tough time. Pandemic, political pandemonium, fear for the future, and change have become the new normal. We live in a world that seems to conspire against the possibility that people can trust one another.
I spoke a couple of weeks ago about what I see on the political horizon, let me talk church. Congregations are crashing. Some ministers are leaving the ministry and people have developed new ways of living that do not involve coming to worship or a willingness to volunteer or support financially, institutions. Whatever tensions existed in a church or other organizations, have become worse or more intense. Old wounds have been opened and many decent people have been reborn as curmudgeons, whose anger has soured them and strained relationships with others, particularly in the life of local congregations. Many folks seem content to stand on the outside and criticize, rather than build or rebuild for the sake of the future.
Last week I had a chance to speak to a young colleague serving a small congregation in New England. This young leader is one of the brightest and best in a new generation of clergy who see things, including the Gospel, a whole lot clearer than I ever did. They have been tested in the recent tough times, and instead of joining those who are leaving ministry, they have embraced the pressure with a sort of persistent love, not unlike the saints and mystics who emerged in the plague and strife torn Middle Ages to lead and to serve and to be the presence of Jesus in that time.
I asked him what he was experiencing in his congregation. He told me what I already knew and shared just now about the struggle and the pain and the brokenness. But then he surprised me.
I half expected to hear him say that he was discouraged and exhausted. Something I had heard from other colleagues too often in recent days. Instead, he went all Isaiah on me. I was sitting at Hal’s desk staring at this text from Isaiah and wondering what on earth I was going to say about it this morning and this young pastor spoke God’s truth and said that he had resolved in the fractured life of his post-pandemic congregation to act and speak in a new way. As I listened, he spoke words which I am audacious enough to suggest were heaven sent. He said this:
“I have resolved to treat each day as a first day in all my relationships. I have committed myself in the work I am doing in this congregation to declare that God is doing a new thing in my life and in this congregation and to act like it and invite whoever shows up here to act that way too. There is no room for too much past.”
And I was sitting there looking at Isaiah 65 while he was speaking, and reading the prophet’s words: “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. Be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating……” (Isaiah 65:17-18b)
Now that knocked the cobwebs off the center of my soul and spoke a word of life that I needed to hear and a word that I need to share.
Dear church, treat each new day as the first day, a day of rebirth and renewal and rejoicing. Do not remember the former things. Greet one another as if you are meeting for the first time. Work together as if the world depends on the work you are doing. Commit yourself to one of the mission partners of this congregation or one of the task force groups, like the environmental justice group or some committee in this community to make this a better town.
Mentor one another, be a second parent or grandparent to those attempting to mold a new generation of moral people in this place; care for one another. Remember that the person sitting next to you bears the image of God. Show up on Sunday or if you can’t, join the balcony, because praying and singing together, and studying an alternative reality that is love driven and Spirit led, is the only thing I know that can subvert and challenge the corrosive environment in which we are living. I have this nightmare vision in my mind of preachers and politicians standing arm in arm in front of a cross spewing vitriol and racial hatred and intolerance as if hanging a cross behind your head makes that OK. It’s not OK.
Dear Plymouth friends, do not hold on to some old hurt or some fractured reality of what has been or what might have been. Assume that God is still speaking and act like it. The best days of this congregation are not sometime in the past. According to the prophet Isaiah they are yet to be.
Do everything you can to grow this church family, numbers are not important, but they are. Money doesn’t matter, but it does. The only thing worse than not giving, is guilt giving. Give with a joyful generosity that will transform your life. Being a generous person is living Jesus and embracing your image as God’s child…. generosity is a life saver. To live the life abundant, give…..
Church growth experts, remember what I said about experts, forget most of what the growth experts have to say…. do mission, do love, do sincere caring and be seen doing all of that. You will suddenly find yourselves surrounded by people of all ages who are attracted by the irresistible power of Jesus love.
A minute ago, I asked you to study an alternative reality driven by love, now let me dare you to live in an alternative reality. Here’s how it goes: the way of Jesus is the way of love. It begins with God’s unconditional love for all of us and for this world and then it invites us into a partnership with that love.
That journey will lead this congregation into intense engagement with environmental justice, water conservation, serious engagement with white supremacy and the oppression of persons of color, especially indigenous people and the genocide that literally took place on the land on which we are worshiping. That will lead to all sorts of good trouble. But good trouble will put you exactly where God wants you to be in the good future God has in store for this congregation.
Finally, thank you for the gift of time in your presence. Next Sunday, I’ll be sitting out there giving thanks, which is exactly where I want to be on the last Sunday before we head home. Strength to you all! Amen.
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
Fort Collins, CO
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
On this mountain the [Holy One] of heavenly forces will prepare for all peoples a rich feast, a feast of choice wines, of select foods rich in flavor, of choice wines well refined. [She] will swallow up on this mountain the veil that is veiling all peoples, the shroud enshrouding all nations. [He] will swallow up death forever. The [ONE God]will wipe tears from every face; God will remove the people's disgrace from off the whole earth, for God has spoken. They will say on that day, "Look! This is our God, for whom we have waited—and God has saved us! This is the ONE, for whom we have waited; let's be glad and rejoice in the Holy One’s salvation!" Bible, Common English. CEB Common English Bible with Apocrypha - eBook [ePub] (Kindle Locations 27223-27235).
When I lived in Denver, the drive I took to First Plymouth UCC church where I served had not one, but two, major scenic vistas of the mountains as you came to the top of big hills on Hampden Avenue. It was stunning to watch them each morning and see how they changed with the seasons. I often thought to myself, “I live on the edge of a great feast of beauty. Yet I’m not partaking of the nourishment!” My family and I rarely went to the mountains. Busy lives of church and work and school activities distracted us from participating in the feast. I guess we feasted in other ways. I know that so many of you make the feast of our Rocky Mountains a regular part of your lives! Good for you! And I realize now that I always feasted my eyes on the glory of the mountains as I drove to work and often remarked to my children about the views.
Our brothers and sisters of Mexican heritage have such a beautiful feasting tradition in their Day of the Dead celebration which takes place on November 1st and 2nd, the same days as All Saints and All Souls Days from European traditions. They lay out a feast for their ancestors who have died, remembering them with all their favorite foods, golden marigold petals and candles to light their way home and envisioning the spirits as butterflies who fly joyfully in for a visit. They do not sanitize their grief or push it away. Instead, they ritualize it with tangible, touchable remembrances. They invite both tears and laughter into the celebration.
Our scripture today brings us healing images of a great feast of abundant life served by God on the top of God’s holy mountain, Zion. And the context for this prophetic healing feast is grief. Isaiah’s poetic prophecy is set against the backdrop of the Hebrew people’s physical and spiritual devastation after they have been conquered by a foreign empire and seen the destruction of their city, Jerusalem and its beautiful temple built by King Solomon. Families were pulled apart as captives were taken into slavery in exile. Homes are torn down around the people still living in them. There was death all around. Don’t you know that the people felt that God had abandoned them? Death cast a shroud over everything.
Does that sound familiar? A shroud over everything? I think that is an apt description of our times after 18-19 months of pandemic. We have felt death, many kinds of death, as an active force of negativity, a shroud, a pall, during these months. We already knew that grief and death were not one-time visitors in this life. They thread their way through our lives in so many ways. We grieve many losses that are small deaths as well as the big deaths of loved ones and friends –job loss – relationships loss – loss of meaning in the midst of despair and depression – loss of health in a diagnosis – loss of community in a move– the loss of a beloved pet – then all the losses of the Covid 19 pandemic piled on top. And in the midst of pandemic, the grief of racism came to us with renewed force as we were already grieving so many injustices in our political system. Sometimes we feel so helpless when we are caught in the grip of grief, so 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 very alone.
Yet we are not alone. The Hebrew people were not alone. They had a prophet telling them that God was preparing salvation for them, salvation as abundant as a feast with fine wines, perhaps all their favorite foods! Salvation as amazing as wiping away every tear and conquering death forever. Death will be no more! Suffering will be no more! Now that is salvation!!
While we are caught up in profound lamentation and grief, God, the Holy ONE, brings hope in the assurance of God’s presence and God’s ultimate deliverance of all people, not just the Hebrew people, but all of the God’s people, from the power of death. Scholar, Christopher Sietz, tells us that is what the phrase, “God will remove the people's disgrace from off the whole earth” means….all the people, not just the Hebrew people. And I would add all of God’s beloved creation, for we cannot be separate as human beings from creation. We are creation. God will deliver ALL from the power of death. This is a vision of hope and the vision we celebrate today in Totenfest here at Plymouth as our Mexican sisters and brothers prepare to celebrate the Day of the Dead.
On this day that we remember those in our Plymouth family and in the wider communities of our individual lives who have died since when we last celebrated this day together. We speak their names. And we are not alone. We “feast” with one another this day as we do throughout the year, that is we companion one another. In an echo of God’s companioning presence, using the example of Jesus, God-with-Us, we are with one another, in joy and in sorrow, in all seasons, in pandemics and in times of health. In times of justice-making and in times of injustice protesting. We are not alone for God, who has the power to in community. Grief experts around the world will tell you that the best thing you can give someone who is in grief is your presence. Simply being a companion.
Here we are today in the great communion of saints. We are all saints of God, my friends, not because we are something extra special. Those designated saints of the church by our Catholic siblings were simply ordinary people following God in extraordinary circumstances. And their stories inspire us. Let us recognize that we are all followers of God today as we companion one another and acknowledge the journey of life’s mystery that extends through and beyond physical death. As we remember those who have moved beyond us on that journey this year by speaking their names in this sacred time and space, we gather in the company of all God’s saints, the living whom see around us and those who have moved into the life with God that we cannot see with earthly eyes. One of the early saints of the Christian faith, St. John Chrysostom, says to us, “Those whom we have loved and lost are no longer where they were before. They are now wherever we are.”
Let us be gathered in God’s companioning presence to speak the names of our loved ones. By this simple act we open ourselves to the transformation of our grief. It does not cease, but it allows God’s love and forgiveness to enter our hears. And this empowers us to companion those in our Fort Collins community, in our state and nation and around the world who are shrouded in grief, who raise their voices in lamentation. As we feast together in God’s transforming and companioning presence, remembering those we love so dearly, we bring the hope of love and forgiveness to all the communion of saints, the living and the dead, now and in every time and place. Amen.
©The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson, 2021 and beyond. May be reprinted only with permission.
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.
Rev. J. T. Smiedendorf
Plymouth Congregational Church
Fort Collins, CO
What do you want? I mean what do you really want?
We are moving into a social season of intensified appeals to want. Advertisers will increasingly try to entice your wants, shape your wants, even redirect your wants. Although what is most powerful is when an advertiser can get us to see their product or service as a fulfillment of a want we already have, especially a deep want, a deep intangible want. It’s not just a car, it’s security and reliability. It’s not just a truck, it’s power and manly status. It’s not just a toy, it’s happiness. These are the deepest wants, the intangibles, the deep ones that have to do with meaning and purpose, values and identity, love and acceptance.
Something that is offered to us as a community of faith is the journey into life giving depth. It’s not that living life in a sacred manner might not involve the delight of a desired product or service, a needed new car, a comforting massage. It’s that there is a call of faith to living into a depth that sees through the illusory or shallow aspects of stuff and amusements into what is of lasting or life-giving value, what we really deeply and truly desire and need.
A faith of resilience and wisdom knows that there are things such as enough, and such as when and where, and such as first things first, and such as beauty and truth. Such a way of life knows when it is the right time for a new car or a massage.
From the place of the soul, the question of what do you want can also be phrased, ‘what do you long for’? In your heart of hearts, for what do you long, for yourself and for others? Or even what do you dream and desire for the world to be? I like that term desire. I have a sense of desire as calling forth something that we feel in the body, something deep in us.
And deep want is the place to which we are faithfully invited when we consider the identity and the expression of being a steward. Stewardship is more than just our October theme. It’s an ‘always theme’ of being a person or a community of faith. Next Sunday, Consecration Sunday, we are asking for each of us to pledge a contribution for 2022 so we can plan responsibly for our ministry and mission in 2022.
Yet, all of this occurs within the larger, ‘the always’ context of faith and stewardship, the context of valuing and trusting and serving something greater than ourselves. Some years ago at a church retreat, the congregation I was serving summarized that something greater as the flourishing of life. We could call it the Realm of God, or the Body of Christ, or Shalom, or justice, peace and the integrity of Creation. Isaiah called it a “new heavens and a new earth.” We could call that kind of something greater a faithful vision of what we really want, what inspires us, touches us, and calls us to celebration and action.
This talk of of vision and hoping for something reminds me of the book Active Hope by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone. This book has a subtitle: How to Face the Mess We are in without Going Crazy. In it, Macy invites us into facing the global environmental crisis by viewing hope not as a feeling based on a prediction of what will happen, hope based on a likely outcome, but into hope based on desire, based on intention, based on our highest vision of what we want for the world, what we most deeply value becoming real. Out of that vision of value and deep desire, we act out our hope. Our hope is active in our living out of and into the vision of what we deeply want.
As noted by Macy in Active Hope and by others in the field of change, starting with the end in mind may be the best way to begin. Starting with what we really want, starting with a deep imagining of what we want to see happen. We can do that now. Perhaps for Plymouth Church, perhaps for Fort Collins, perhaps for Colorado or for all Creation. The Strategic Planning Team has offered a vision of five years forward. Review their vision.
And you can move into the future perhaps 10, 20, or even 50 years. Close your eyes and see if it deepens your imagining. Imagine with all your imaginative senses what it is like to have our deepest hopes come to be. In positive terms, not imagining what you don’t want or what isn’t there, but focusing on what you do want and on what is there, imagine what you desire for the flourishing of life. What is that like? What do you see? What do you smell? What do you touch and taste? What do you hear?
Those who research this process encourage us to set aside “the how” in this phase of the process and just focus on the what. When we have filled that positive picture up, we take time to feel in our hearts the desire for it and the joy in its coming. Only then do we ask the question, how did we get here? The imagination is used to trace backward in time the steps that led to that change until we come back to the moment in which we stand. We come back to the now moment and are able to more adequately act with effectiveness to move on the path toward that greater something we seek.
I can think of instances in the life of churches I’ve served and even my own life where I couldn’t imagine how I would get to somewhere or some way, but those churches did and I did. Somehow the vision did manifest. With a focus on the vision and persistent steps, and sometimes with unexpected gifts and graces, the new was and is birthed, even the hard-to-believe "NEW."
This morning’s sacred reading from our Scriptures is an example of vision, a description of what (Third) Isaiah understood God really wants to have happen with human beings; to have fairness for those who labor, that they be rewarded with adequate fruits of their labor, that people are healthy and live full life spans, that there be an end to violence. Described beautifully in images that we can use to more deeply enter this reality, this desire, these images invite us to see elders and children together, to taste fruit and feel the shade of the vines, to hear the pounding of the swords into plowshares (Longmont UCC).
And, here and now, as much as ever, we are called to have a vision of the Realm of God, a place where there is balance in the relationships of humanity and in Creation so that we see polar bears walking on plentiful ice, and hear the songs of songbirds aplenty, and see the sight of whales breaching, and of students filling classrooms in productive learning, and of workers performing jobs with good pay and benefits, and smell good nutritious luscious food in the air, and hear the sound of music and laughter.
If our prayer that heaven may come upon the earth is to manifest, we must be on the path of stewarding our individual and communal lives, and that includes feeling and holding that vision of what we truly deeply want: the flourishing of life that the God of Grace and Justice wants for Creation.
What do you see and feel and smell and hear when you imagine that vision of what God wants for the world? What vision do you see and feel and smell and hear when you imagine what God wants for Plymouth Church? What can you do with your time, talent, and treasure to help manifest it?
May we be about the business of vision, the imagining that opens us and guides us and sustains us being vital, joyful, and wise stewards of the life that we have received.
J. T. comes to Plymouth as an experienced interim pastor, most recently, as Bridge Minister at University Congregational UCC in Seattle. Previously, he served congregations in Denver, Laramie, and Forest Grove, Oregon. Read more
*Isaiah 65:17-25 (Third Isaiah, back in Judah but struggling)
17 For I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind.
18 But be glad and rejoice forever
in what I am creating;
for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy,
and its people as a delight.
19 I will rejoice in Jerusalem,
and delight in my people;
no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,
or the cry of distress.
20 No more shall there be in it
an infant that lives but a few days,
or an old person who does not live out a lifetime;
for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth,
and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.
21 They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
22 They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat;
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
23 They shall not labor in vain,
or bear children for calamity;[a]
for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord--
and their descendants as well.
24 Before they call I will answer,
while they are yet speaking I will hear.
25 The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,
the lion shall eat straw like the ox;
but the serpent—its food shall be dust!
They shall not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain,
says the Lord.
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
Isaiah 64.1-9(10-12) * [text at bottom of post]
First Sunday in Advent
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
Twentieth century poet, Langston Hughes, wrote his poem, "Dreams" , in 1922. It was one of his earliest works and one of his best remembered.
Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.
Hughes’ images are incredibly poignant for us as we enter Advent in this pandemic ridden, politically and racially divisive year. How do we hold on to our national dreams of health and peace and cooperation and justice and abundance and equality for all this Advent? Our faith dreams of building God’s realm here and now on earth? How do we dream Hope?
The ancient people of God, the Israelites of the 6th century B.C.E., were wondering the same thing when they heard the prophet cry out to God in lament, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence…” They, too, were wondering if they could dream hope and they were trying hard to hold on the “awesome deeds” of God they had experienced with surprise and joy in the past. Why was God not acting like God way back in the day when they were delivered from slavery in Egypt? Or even not so far back in the day when they were led out of exile in Babylon and back to Jerusalem to rebuild their lives in the promised land and to rebuild the temple of the Most High? Instead of flowing springs in the desert and straight highways of policy following God’s law, instead of an oasis of plenty, they had returned from exile ready to rebuild only to find strife and hardship. There were polemical factions among the differing tribes; they were short on cooperation. Physically rebuilding the temple along with new infrastructures for simply living together was much more difficult than they had ever imagined. They felt abandoned by the God whom the prophet had promised would restore their fortunes and renew their abundance. Perhaps, they didn’t have a pandemic, but they knew well the unrest of extreme civil discord at a time they needed to work together to survive.
The book of Isaiah spans three centuries of the Israelites’ relationship with God. The original 8th century prophet, Isaiah, prophesied to the rulers and people of Judah when the Babylonian empire was encroaching upon them, eventually conquering Jerusalem. Much of the population was captured and taken into exile in Babylon where they learned to make their lives and honor their God in a foreign land. In the late 7th and into the 6th century B.C.E., a new prophet arose in the midst of exile writing in the name and fashion of Isaiah. These first two prophets gave the people the wondrous and inspiring poetry and prose of hope that we often hear this time of year: “the people who walk in darkness have seen a great light,” “you shall go out with joy and be led forth in peace, the trees shall clap their hands,” “the lion shall lie down with the lamb…and a little child shall lead them.” Now we hear from the prophet who is with the people after the return from exile…. things are looking very bleak….and the prophet speaking in the tradition of Isaiah loudly laments…”Where are you, God? Come down to us! You forgot us and so now we have sinned…. we are fractured as a people, hanging on by a thread… you have hidden from us and so even our best efforts are like filthy rags…we are undone!”
How many times in this past year could any of us, each of us, have lifted up the sentiments of this lament to God? For goodness sake – literally ¬– Where are you, God?!? For God’s sake – literally – show yourself! Fix us, deliver us, restore us to your presence. As the poet warned us early in this sermon, without our dreams, without hope, life is like a broken-winged bird, crippled and dying. Life is barren, about to be snuffed out in the frozen depths of our deep disconnection with you, Holy One. The ancient prophet’s cry in this 64th chapter of Isaiah moves us from anger and despair, which we know all too well in our times, to broken-hearted sobbing sorrow and lament which we also know in these times of pandemic and racial violence.
If it feels excruciating and you are wondering what kind of introduction to Advent is this? – you are getting it. You see, it turns out that authentic lament with all its anger and confession and sorrow is psychologically good for us and good for our souls. Bottling up all our feelings in stoic silence does not solve any issue. It alienates us from others and its bad for our blood pressure. The structure of lament is an appropriate practice for expression. Spiritually, lament breaks open our hearts before God. And when our hearts are broken as they have been in this year, broken open, our eyes and our ears can open as well. It turns out that the prophet does not leave us despairing in the dirt, fading away like dead leaves, but in acknowledging our brokenness before God, the prophet points us paradoxically to God who is with us in our vulnerability and pain.
“8 Yet, O LORD, you are our Father [our Maker]; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. 9 Do not be exceedingly angry, O LORD, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.”
The ancient stories of God’s past deliverance of God’s people proclaimed by prophets are not sentimental, smothering nostalgia nor are they a delusional panacea denying the pain of the present. They are beacons of light drawn from the collective memories of God’s people as a source of hope. God’s prophets are not fortune-telling predictors of the future events. They are witnesses to God’s presence in the world and in our lives, God, who is vulnerable and nurturing and suffering with us. God who tends and shapes God’s people – ALL of God’s people, not just a special set of followers of particular religious tenants – all of the people, all of humanity, all of creation, intimately shaped in love by God’s creating Spirit, as a potter shapes clay to make useful vessels.
The prophet knew that when God seems hidden, people are lonely and hurting. And this is when we act out in fear, sinning against one another. The prophet also knew that God is always hiding in plain sight in the pain of our very lives and situations. God is not a coy, disguised superhero… Clark Kent, the humble bumbling reporter, one minute and Superman saving the world the next minute. The character of God is “divine determination relating to the world “through the vulnerable path of noncoercive love and suffering service rather than domination and force.” 
This determined loving, suffering character of God is why we can dream hope even in the worst of times. We have Love Divine with us, within us, among us, binding us together even in conflict and seeming de-construction of all that we hold dear. This is the God of the Advent call, “O come, O come, Emmanuel – God with us!”
Perhaps you saw the artwork for this week from our Advent devotional booklet in the Plymouth Thursday Overview and Saturday Evening emails. Its titled, “Tear Open the Heavens” and painted by Rev. Lauren Wright Pittman, a founding partner of Sanctified Art, the group who wrote our devotional. Look at it with me for just a moment…. What do you see? I see weeping….spilling over love, an overflowing pottery pitcher, mountains, trees, wise eyes, divine presence, the colors of love, the actions of love.
We can dream hope because God is dreaming with us as we weep and laugh and work together with God. As we sometimes rage against the pain and darkness – with God. As we sometimes hide from one another and from God. Yet God, Divine Love, is always dreaming hope and dreaming love through us, through our lives. Therefore, we can hold fast to our dreams because God is holding fast to us even when we are not watching. “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,” we say. And God says, “I have. I am with you. I never left.” Amen.
Holy One, we come before you this morning with hopes for dreaming hope, for building hope, for being hope in our corners of your world. We long to get our hands dirty with the work of hope as we raise money for homelessness prevention, as we support the immigrants in our community, as we learn together with our children and youth about the active hope of Advent, as we support one another in these difficult times – even if distanced. As our thoughts and preparations turn toward the Christmas season, keep us ever-mindful of gratitude for our blessings, ever-giving from those same gifts for you have given them to us for sharing. Bless all those who struggle with illness of any kind, those who wait for much needed surgery or procedures because the hospitals are full of Covid 19 patients who need the frontline care. Bless the caregivers of all kinds, whether in a facility or at home. Bless the children and youth and young adults as they go back to remote school. Bless those who mourn the loss of a loved one. Bless our country in this time of transition. May we all turn toward much needed healing of racial and political divides. Bless us all as we seek to participate in your hope for your creation. Hear us now as we say the prayer Jesus taught us to say, “Our Father, who art….
 Scott Bader-Saye, “Theological Perspective”, Isaiah 64.1-9, First Sunday in Advent, Year B, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 1, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. (Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville, KY, 2008, 6.)
©The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson, 2020 and beyond. May only be reprinted with permission.
* Isaiah 64.1-9[10-12]
1 O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence —
2 as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil —
to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!
3 When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. 4From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him.
5You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways.
But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself, we transgressed.
6We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. 7 There is no one who calls on your name or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.
8 Yet, O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. 9 Do not be exceedingly angry, O LORD, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.
(10 Your holy cities have become a wilderness, Zion has become a wilderness, Jerusalem a desolation. 11 Our holy and beautiful house, where our ancestors praised you,
has been burned by fire, and all our pleasant places have become ruins. 12 After all this, will you restrain yourself, O LORD? Will you keep silent, and punish us so severely?)
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.
Micah 5. 2-4; Isaiah 35.1-10
Zephaniah 3.14-18; Luke 1.26-38 (scroll to bottom for texts)
Advent Service of Lessons and Carols
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson
I listened to these ancient texts this week in tandem with hearing the news of the week: the continued debate of impeachment hearings in Congress, the naming of 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, climate change activist, as Time magazine’s Person of the Year and the bullying response of the President to that news, the memory of the Sandy Hook school shooting on its 7th anniversary yesterday, December 14th, and the knowledge that families are still separated at our southern border and children are kept in cages. This is heartbreaking, fear-producing stuff.
After the synagogue shooting this past April in Poway, CA, New York Times columnist, David Brooks, titled his column, “An Era Defined by Fear; the emotional tone underneath the political conflicts.” Brooks writes that fear pervades our society. That is really no news to any of us. But he lays it out so succinctly that we recognize it, especially as it is in stark contrast to the celebration of this season. Brooks tells us that politicians use fear to rise to power setting one group or tribe of people against another. Fear comes from our own personal traumas and experiences in childhood and beyond. Fear is exploited by the media to grab headlines. Fear grips our minds, making us numb and unable to hear good news. Fear makes us angry and acting out of anger produces more fear. Fear paralyze sour ability to take practical action, to get stuff done for the good of ourselves, our families, our communities and our world. Fear paralyzes our ability to share abundance, to be generous.
Did you hear the word of God proclaimed by our prophets today, Micah, Isaiah, Zephaniah and the gospel writer, Luke? Each of these powerful writers was addressing a community in their time that was beset by fear. Fear of oppression and persecution, fear of failure, fear of even surviving. We are not the first generation to live in the midst of great fear. Isaiah says to the people through all that revitalizing imagery of the barren wilderness coming alive, “Be strong, do not fear! God will come to save you.” Zephaniah tells the people, “you shall fear disaster no more! Rejoice and exult. Do not fear, do not let your hands grow weak...God is in your midst.” The angel says to Mary, “Do not be afraid for you have found favor with God.” Micah promises One who is coming as a shepherd to lead and protect the people. “They shall live secure; [for] this One is of peace. “
These words are also for us in our era of fear. They are not “pie-in-the-sky by and by” words. They hold Truth that grounds us. Truth we can know through our faith, through trusting in God’s presence even in the midst of extreme adversity when there seems to be no hope on the horizon, through putting our faith into action day after day. At the end of his column, Brooks writes, “Fear comes in the night. But eventually you have to wake up in the morning, get out of bed and get stuff done.”
My friends, for us that “stuff” is reading and remembering the promises of we have heard in our texts today. That “stuff” is praying with these promises in our hearts and minds. That “stuff” is our daily acts of kindness to combat the pervasiveness of fear. That “stuff” is working for justice, caring for our families, coming to worship, celebrating this Advent season of Hope, Peace, Joy and Love that prepares us to receive at Christmas and beyond, to receive again and again and again the Holy One who came to show us how to be human by being God with us.
Does it seem impossible some days to keep on keeping on in the face of the fear and anger in our age? Yes, it does. But remember, the angel says, “With God nothing will be impossible.” And that, my friends, is a promise of pure joy that sustains us through happiness and sadness.
Fear not! God is in the midst of you! God is with us! With God nothing will be impossible....barren wildernesses bloom, miraculous births abound, people are united in love rather than hate. God comes in human form, the baby of a poor, migrant woman grows up to show us all how to live in the transforming ways of God! Be joyful and rejoice! Amen.
©The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, 2019. All rights reserved.
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.
Isaiah 11.1-10 & Matthew 3.1-12
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning
Plymouth Congregational UCC,
Fort Collins, Colorado
Repent! That is the key message we hear from John the Baptizer. That would certainly make him popular at a church potluck or an upscale cocktail party, wouldn’t it? I’ve sometimes thought it would be really awkward to have Jesus at Thanksgiving dinner with all of our celebratory excess, but he doesn’t hold a candle to his cousin, John.
Many of the paintings and frescoes I’ve seen of John portray him as something of a wild man, looking disheveled and unkempt. One of the very early frescoes labels him in Latin: Ioannis Precursor, literally the forerunner of Jesus. The funny thing for me is that I find those images appealing, because they are often so human in their portrayal. John looks like he bears the sadness of the human condition on his face. His expression seems to acknowledge that humanity is in need of a radical turn-around, and the best way he knows how to do that is to be provocative and to offer a baptism for the repentance of sins, and it is a cleansing ritual not unknown in Judaism.
In last week’s sermon, I claimed that John was just the precursor and that Jesus was the one really doing a new thing, not by baptizing with water, but with fire and the Holy Spirit. The idea is that Jesus’ baptism will be transforming us, refining us, not just cleansing us…that it will instill in us a new sense of God’s presence, what Dom Crossan calls a different kind of heart transplant – not of the pumping organ in your chest, but a radical transplant of the spirit within you…that your old spirit is done and gone and that Christ’s spirit is implanted into you.
And it would take something incredibly radical to disrupt the food chain Isaiah describes: Let’s face it, if you ever watched Wild Kingdom or Sir David Attenborough on TV, you know that the natural order means that wolves are meant to eat lambs, and that leopards are meant to eat goats, and that lions are meant to eat calves. It is nature, red it tooth and claw. All of us understand that the natural order is less likely to change than human behavior. Unlike the rest of the animal kingdom, we have the ability to choose our responses and our behaviors. But that is a tall order.
So, what about disrupting our assumptions? Don’t most of us assume that self-interest is normal and ethical? Don’t we assume that the “invisible hand of the market” is and should control our economy? Don’t we assume that “the poor will always be with us?” and that even though we tried to end homelessness in Fort Collins by 2020, it was something of a pipe dream? (I was told as much by an older Presbyterian clergyperson back when I was on the Leadership Team of Homeward 2020.) Every year for the past 15 years, I have seen our teens sleep out to raise funds and awareness to prevent homelessness, and I’ve slept out with them three or four years…and I’m still waiting for one of my colleagues to do the same! What if one of the young people who participates gets the idea that maybe things don’t have to be the way they are? What if one of them threw everything they’ve got into dreaming up a new way to work on the root causes of homelessness and came up with a solution? With all due respect to the focus on STEM in our educational system, our ethical and social structures need more emphasis, because science and technology are clearly out-pacing economics, social relations, theology, politics, arts, and literature, and as a people, we’re suffering from it.
What if parents like me did less to encourage our kids to play competitive sports and get the highest grades and spent more time inculcating the kind of values our faith espouses? What if we stopped trying so hard to make them “successful” and focused on compassion instead? What kind of world might be created if we allow ourselves to be baptized with fire and with the Holy Spirit?
Nobody is going to force you to change, to repent, to engage in deep inner transformation. And the reason is simple: nobody can do that for you. Transformation is an “inside job.” And it’s right in the middle of Plymouth’s mission statement of worshiping God and making the kingdom visible by inviting people into our faith, transforming ourselves deeply, and then sending us out into the world. All of us need to work on becoming better citizens of God’s realm, and that will require some realignment of our priorities and it will require some sacrifice of the things relatively affluent Americans love most: recreation, time, privilege, and money. A few weeks ago, I saw a meme on Facebook that said, “Sometimes being a good Christian means being a bad Roman.”
And what we stand to gain is what Americans talk least about — you know…the Mr. Rogers values — loving relationships with others, being spiritually and emotionally grounded, relying on neighbors, having a sense of security that does not depend on a stock portfolio, gated communities, or carrying a firearm. And most of all, it means being connected to the presence of God.
Being baptized with water? That’s easy. Not so much with fire and the Holy Spirit.
Imagine if you heard this prophecy:
“The business magnate will support the homeless man.
The Democrat shall embrace the Republican as a sister or brother.
The gun manufacturer will build tools with the smithy.
The Russian oligarch and the Andean farmer will work as one.
The refugee and the white supremacist will be at home with one another. And a little child shall lead them.”
What would you add to that list of unlikely, but desirable, events? What enemies do you wish would become lovers? What circumstances would you love to transform? God knows there is so much to be done…and there is a place to start.
In 1780, John Adams (who considered studying for the Congregational ministry at Harvard before he opted for law) wrote to his wife Abigail from Paris: “I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, Navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary and Porcelaine.” That is what Adams envisioned as transformation and progress, and he risked his life for it.
Though you and I know that we cannot change the world overnight, with God’s help we have a place to start: with prayer. The first step is to open ourselves up the transformative power of God…to pray, to talk about, to work for a world that Jesus would recognize as God’s realm. And doing so, we must avoid falling into the traps of despair or hopelessness or lacking trust in God’s presence in the world. We have to keep the faith…just as the Hebrew people did when they were in captive exile in Babylon.
You and I have the amazing privilege of getting to pray for and to work for the kind of nation and the kind of world that God would be proud of, and it starts in here. It is a nation, it is a world, that is full of pain, but those may be the birth pangs of coming into a new way of being. You and I are called to be the agents of transformation in ourselves and in God’s world, so in this Advent season of active waiting, let us keep the faith.
There is a voice in the wilderness calling, so keep awake, listen deeply, and pray fervently, because the kingdom of God is at hand.
© 2019 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org 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.