The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
Advent is the time of year when we start thinking that we can fall into the same comfortable pattern of lighting candles, anticipating Christmas — and hearing endless refrains of “Rudolph” and “White Christmas” as we shop for presents. But today I’d like to suggest something a little different.
The texts that we read during Advent include some familiar stories, like John the Baptizer telling us that he is not messiah…who will not baptize with water, but with the Holy Spirit and with fire. And during this season, we also get lots of prophecy from Isaiah, of the wolf and the lamb living harmoniously, the shoot growing forth from the tree of Jesse, and the young woman bearing a son. And on this first Sunday of Advent, we get a prophecy of peace…of an anything-but-familiar way of living in the world.
Today’s text comes from the first of three sections of the Book of Isaiah, and it sounds almost like a pilgrimage psalm, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord.” This chapter reinforces the idea of Jerusalem (the mountain of the Lord) is the home of God. Even though we think of God as “everywhere” not just in Jerusalem, the writer is setting the reign of God above all the empires of the earth…Assyria and Babylon, then Rome, then London, then Washington. That implies that it won’t be business as usual in God’s world…that something new is going to happen.
I was struck this week by Pope Francis’s visit to Japan, especially to the atomic bomb sites of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. While we were visiting my son Cameron in Japan last spring, Jane Anne and I visited Hiroshima and found it to be an incredibly moving experience. It is not easy to be an American and to visit the city that was leveled by a bomb dropped by our nation to end the Second World War. When we were there, we noticed a conspicuous scarcity of Americans, especially visiting the museum that details life in Hiroshima before, during, and after the bombing. One of the artifacts that touched me particularly was a child’s tricycle that had been twisted and burned by the blast. My dad served in the Pacific during World War II and was later a B-17 pilot, so it had some deep, personal resonances for me. Without judging whether the use of atomic weapons was an appropriate decision, all of us can acknowledge that it happened, and that there were extraordinary casualties.
And it was there in Japan, the only nation to endure an atomic bombing, that Pope Francis called for a world free from nuclear weapons, saying, “The use of atomic energy for purposes of war is immoral…we will be judged on this.” That is a new thing! That is kingdom talk, not empire talk. It is a radical departure from what we consider the normalcy of civilization. Our nation spends nearly $50 billion on the nuclear weapons industry…what else might we do with that $50 billion?
Isaiah, Micah, and Joel all use the imagery of “beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.” And that is what Pope Francis is saying. Fifty billion dollars could build a lot of plowshares. Could we ever consider something so radical?
Jesus was a radical in ways that John never was. John came offering a baptism for the repentance of sins, and Jesus came healing the sick and proclaiming God’s liberating reign…in other words, regime change…through the movement of the Holy Spirit.
Walter Brueggemann, a UCC theologian writes, “being baptized with God’s holy spirit [means]…we may be visited by a spirit of openness, generosity, energy, that ‘the force’ may come over us, carry us to do obedient things we have not yet done, kingdom things we did not think we had in us, neighbor things from which we cringe. The whole tenor of Advent is that God may act in us, through us, beyond us, more than we imagined because newness is on its way among us. John is not the newness. He prepares us for the newness….Advent is preparing for the demands of newness that will break the tired patterns of fear in our lives.”
What are the tired patterns of fear in our nation that hamstring us? Could be find a new way, a kingdom way, to share the abundance God has entrusted to us? Could we find a new way to focus our efforts the collective good, rather than simply our individual well-being and economic self-interest?
What are the tired patterns of fear in your own life? Could you find a new way, a kingdom way, of understanding and sharing the abundance God has entrusted to you? Could you let go of thinking that you are an inadequate parent, partner, student, daughter or son – and perhaps see in yourself what God already sees in you? Could you let go of some of the “what ifs” in your life and simply live in the moment? Could you let go of some of your attitude of scarcity – that there is never enough – and instead focus on the abundance that God has given you, not just in economic terms, but in terms of time, relationship, love, and faith?
Are you ready for some newness to break forth in Advent this year? If so, what might you ask God to help you with? The wonder of our faith is that you are not alone…you don’t have to muscle through tough changes on your own, because God is with you every step of the way.
Will you pray with me? God, we ask for you to accompany us on our Advent journey. May we take time to be present with you, with those we love, and with ourselves. May be gentle with the people around us and with ourselves. And may we be alert to the changes you may be calling forth within us and among us, and may we keep awake to the newness that Advent brings.
© 2019 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact email@example.com for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
 “Pope Francis called for a world free of nuclear weapons” by Christopher White, Washington Post, November 24, 2019.
 Walter Brueggemann, Celebrating Abundance. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017), p. 4
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.
Isaiah 25: 6-10a
All Saints Sunday, November 3, 2019
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
25:6 On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.
25:7 And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever.
25:8 Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken.
25:9 It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the LORD for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.
25:10a For the hand of the LORD will rest on this mountain.
The poetic prophecy of Isaiah is set against the backdrop of the Hebrew peoples’ physical and spiritual devastation when a foreign empire conquers their country and destroys their city, Jerusalem. Families are pulled apart as captives are taken into slavery in exile. Their homes are torn down around them. There is death all around. It seemed as if God had abandoned them! Death had cast a shroud over the whole people. If images from recent news of refugee camps and the devastation of Middle Eastern cities are coming to your mind, then you are getting the situation of God’s people in this text.
Death is an “active force of negativity that moves to counter and cancel and prevent well-being,” writes Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann.[i] Death, in its many forms, leaves us feeling diminished and separated from God. Grief after death is not a one time visitor....it’s thread runs through our lives in many ways. As a chaplain friend of mine says, “There are so many little deaths in life – dying is just one of them.”
We most certainly experience the shroud of death Isaiah speaks of when our loved ones die. Some deaths are just way before their time and come with tragic circumstances. And even when the death of a loved one has been peaceful and comes naturally at the end of a vital, productive life we can still feel the devastation of loneliness and abandonment. We grieve many other losses in life..... job loss – relationship loss – loss of meaning in the midst of despair and depression – loss of community in moving across the country – the loss of a beloved pet. We grieve when we hear the news of violence against other human beings – gun violence, domestic violence, the violence of prejudice and injustices of all kinds, the violence of war. We grieve when we hear of and experience ecological violence against God’s creation. And we often feel helpless in the midst of grief, disgraced that we cannot lift ourselves up from the mire, that we cannot change the circumstances that caused us or others to grieve. We feel alone.
In all these experiences our hearts, our souls, long for companions in community and in the presence of God. We need those who will walk beside us, following our lead as we move through the sorrow, the anger, the numbness, the loneliness. We need companions without judgment, without time frames, or fix-it solutions to cheer us up. We need companions who patiently walk with us toward the hope of transformation. The best gift we can give someone in grief is simply being a companion.
The poet, Patricia McKernon Runkle beautifully expresses this kind of companioning in her poem “When You Meet Someone Deep in Grief.”
Slip off your needs
and set them by the door.
this darkened chapel
hollowed by loss
hallowed by sorrow
its gray stone walls
are here to listen
not to sing.
Kneel in the back pew.
Make no sound,
let the candles
In other words, just be. You do not have to fix. Listen. Or simply sit in silence with the one in grief. Your presence is the balm, the greatest “fix” you can offer.
The prophet Isaiah proclaims that our companioning God invites us to sit and be at God’s table of hope and abundance in the midst of grief and loss – in the midst of the many little dyings, as well as the big ones, in the midst of fear and devastation. At God’s table we are transformed by God’s companioning. God feeds us with love in a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines – or here in Fort Collins, maybe we should say, well-brewed beer. The prophet declares that God will destroy the shroud, the sheet of deep grief that is spread over all nations; God will swallow up death forever and will wipe away the tears from all faces. I believe that in the death and resurrection of Jesus who is now the Christ, the redeeming presence of God with us, death was swallowed up forever in an ultimate and cosmic way that is both mystery and revelation. And we can trust this mystery because of the new life that it reveals.
Friends, here in this community of God’s saints we endeavor to companion one another on the journey of life’s mystery that extends through and beyond physical death. God is our ever-present companion drawing us all together. As companioning community we are tangible evidence of the presence of God in all our lives.
You have been and continue to be companions of your pastors as we continue to walk through the grief of my son’s death and through the grief of Hal’s cancer diagnosis and treatment. You are with us in tangible and intangible ways, in prayers, in the mountains of cards you have sent. You are with us in the prayer flags that you made for me after Colin’s death. They hung on our back fence for at least nine months until I noticed early this summer that they were disappearing. I finally realized those darn squirrels were taking them. Irritated I went out to salvage what was left, muttering to myself, “Those were MY prayer flags!”
Then later that day Hal took me to our deck and pointed up. There in a very large, very tall, evergreen in our neighbor’s yard, way at the top of the tree, was a very colorful squirrel’s nest, made with prayer flags. They had been “transformed!” So they still companion me....and I hear Colin’s laughter each time I look at them. They assure me of God’s companioning presence that comes through you and through the beauty and surprise of nature.
The words of Isaiah assure us that God’s hope is as abundant as a great feast. And that the shroud of death is not the ultimate future. God’s life is the ultimate future. God’s presence offers transformation because God is the ultimate companion in the many deaths of our lives. God comes into the darkened chapel of our souls and sits with us as a congregation of one, listening to our grief. God sends us to one another to listen as companions in grief. And through our companioning we are transformed in our individual grief as well as in our community. Transformed to companion those here in Fort Collins, in northern Colorado, in our country and around the world who suffer the death-dealing forces violence, prejudice and injustice.
Even in the very real ache of grief we can say with the prophet and with conviction, God will swallow up death forever. God will wipe away all tears and take away the shroud of disgrace that covers the earth through human violence and greed. Don’t you want to participate with this companioning God in this miraculous transformation? The invitation is open as we companion one another through God’s love.
© The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, 2019. All rights reserved. Permission is granted to reprint Patricia McKernon Runkle's poem from her website: griefscompass.com.
[i] Walter Bruggemann, Isaiah 1 -39, (Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY: 1998, 199).
[ii] Patricia McKernon Runkle, “When You Meet Someone Deep in Grief”. The is poem is reprinted here with the permission of the poet. You can discover more about Patricia McKernon Runkle at her website, www.griefscompass.com and on Good Reads. Her book on her own grief journey after her brother’s death is titled, Grief’s Compass; Walking the Wilderness with Emily Dickinson.
Associate Minister Jane Anne Ferguson is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. Learn more about Jane Anne here.
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