The Rev. Hal Chorpenning
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
In some churches, Reformation Sunday was a time to bash our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters as being superstitious, naïve, corrupt…and the church as a whole, whether Protestant or Catholic or Evangelical or Orthodox has plenty of sin to confess. So often, we are not able to see the log in our own eye when we castigate others, and I’m not going to bash anyone today (especially since I’m going to spend four days in a Jesuit retreat center this week). Instead, I want to talk about parts of our tradition that still are informed by the experience and understandings derived from the Reformation: not just Luther’s break with Rome, not just Calvin and Zwingli’s experience in Switzerland — all of which informed our Evangelical and Reformed tradition in the UCC. And I’m not going to talk too much about the English Reformation that was kickstarted by Henry VIII’s withdrawal from the Roman Church and the formation of the Church of England, though that is where our Congregational forbears have their roots.
Instead, I want to talk about newness and transformation. Many Christian’s read this morning’s passage from Jeremiah and think, “Oh…a new covenant…he must be foretelling Jesus.” Jews obviously don’t read the prophecy that way. Isaiah relays the information that God is about to do a new thing (Is. 43.19), and again Christians may read that as a prophecy of Jesus’ messiahship, but Jews don’t read it that way. Perhaps what these two passage are saying to all of us is that God doesn’t stand still…that God is about finding new ways of being in relationship with God’s people…that there will be new ways that God’s people are faithful.
Reformation is about course-correction. When the armada of the church has steered into a storm, some ship captains recognize that it is time to take a new tack and get into clearer weather. Reformation is not just something that happened on October 31, 1517 when an Augustinian priest nailed 95 theses to a church door in Wittenberg, Germany. It wasn’t the first reformation and it wasn’t the last. In the Congregational tradition, it happened in conjunction with the continental reformation, accelerated with Henry VIII and the birth of the Church of England, and with the idea that the state church, of which kings and queens were and are the head, was still stuck in the storm with the rest of the armada.
Even under the more Protestant reign of Elizabeth I, some thought that the extent of religious reform in England still had not gone far enough. They objected to religious vestments (surplices, robes, and other priestly garments), to making the sign of the cross, and to the observation of saints’ days. Another major objection was the use of prayer books at all and the Book of Common Prayer in particular. Instead, they thought that prayer should come only from the heart, not from the printed page. They wanted to do away with bishops and church courts, replacing them with consistories and synods as a means of church discipline. A recent history of the Plymouth pilgrims says that “around the turn of the 17th century, puritan became a common epithet in England,” [John G. Turner, They Knew They Were Pilgrims (Yale: New Haven, 2020), p. 9.] and the name stuck. Most puritans wanted to stay within the Church of England and to work on reform from within. Other more fervent puritans wanted to “tear down the Church of England and start from scratch” [Turner]. These were the Separatists, some of who eventually made their way to Plymouth, Mass.
As you can imagine, this was not well received by either Church authorities or the monarchy, and while some Separatists had the means and good sense to emigrate to the Netherlands, others stayed in England…some at their peril. Authorities raided Separatist congregations, arresting men and women. On one occasion in London, 21 Separatists were arrested. More than a dozen died in jail, and their two ministers, John Greenwood and Henry Barrow were hanged in 1593. What was so threatening was the idea of Christian liberty in the formation of local congregations that would preserve the freedoms of the laity in the admission of members, election of officers, calling ministers, and the exercise of church discipline.
Those early Separatists, who became Plymouth Pilgrims and later Congregationalists, had ideas of reform that challenged the status quo not just in their ecclesiology (their theology of what the church is and ought to be), but it also rubbed up against royal power. James I said succinctly, “No bishops, no king.”
Since this is the 400th anniversary year of the Pilgrims arrival in Plymouth, Mass., I’ll be saying more about them at the end of November, but I hope that this glimpse at our Separatist forbears in England helps you to understand some of the things about this congregation, and that ways that we keep transforming and reforming. If God is still speaking, we ought to be listening and responding.
During the Second World War, Swiss Reformed Theologian Karl Barth said that the church is always reforming (ecclesia semper reformanda) through self-examination and transformation, and that is certainly true for our UCC today. Can you imagine what the Pilgrims would have thought about being Open & Affirming? Or me wearing an alb and a stole? Or Carla and Jane Anne being ordained ministers? Part of the genius (and I use that in the classical sense, not meaning wicked smart) of the Congregational tradition is that it is willing to morph and transform. Think about it this way: The Puritans of Boston and the Pilgrims of Plymouth became the Congregationalists (now UCC) and the Unitarians, perhaps the two most progressive churches around today. Continual growth and reformation are in our denominational DNA.
I want to go back to Karl Barth for a moment. In the days leading up to World War II, the German church became nazified, wedded to the prevailing politics of hate, and some theologians, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, stood defiantly against the state controlling the church…and he died for that conviction. Others, including Barth, formed something called the Confessing Church and they wrote a statement called the Barmen Declaration, which is an integral part of the denominational heritages of the UCC, the Presbyterian Church USA, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and of course the EKD, the German Protestant Church. Hear these words, and see if they ring true at this moment in history: “We reject the false doctrine that the Church could have permission to hand over … its message and of its order to whatever it itself might wish or to the vicissitudes of the prevailing ideological and political convictions of the day.” I wonder if you can see these words, written in 1934, having any applicability to American Christianity that is so often in its history institutionalized racism and white privilege…that is co-opted by radical individualism and the prosperity gospel…that neglects the words and actions of Jesus in favor of empty slogans like “family values” and “pro-life,” while separating immigrant children from their parents, putting them in cages, and then being unable to reunite them with their families. These are “the vicissitudes of the prevailing ideological and political conventions” of America today. May God give us strength to stand up and make a change.
Last week, our strategic planning team had its first meeting, and you’ll be hearing more about that as we schedule online focus groups. We’ll be looking especially at who is our neighbor and what God is calling us to become as our congregation continues to reform itself and move forward. Even before the pandemic, I asked you to begin praying about and wondering about this question: What is your dream for Plymouth? And I ask you especially to think about that in terms of who Plymouth is called to become ask we ask the question, “Who is our neighbor?”
If you ever wonder why the role of the church in society is important, I hope you will remember our history, and that you will become a part of shaping the history our own time. May God’s law of love and compassion be written on all of our hearts.
© 2020 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.
The Rev. Charles Buck is president and CEO of United Church Funds. Rev. Buck's leadership with the UCC has spanned 30 years at the local church, conference and national levels. He has served as pastor of churches in Northern California and Hawaii for over 15 years, then as conference minister for Hawaii and New Hampshire for a total of 14 years.
Pentecost 16 C
Rev. Dr. Mark Lee
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, CO
It was the worst of times. No, really the worst – it was 586 BC, and the trauma ripples through to this very day. Ask any Jew. Ask any Palestinian. The kingdom of Judah was being swallowed up by the Babylonian Empire. Armies surrounded Jerusalem. The ruling elites were split; some favored submitting to the Babylonians, others wanted to hold out, hoping for Egyptian intervention. People could come and go to a degree, but no equipment, food nor water could enter the city. Would God deliver them? Was this punishment for their sins? Who knew where God was in this? Hope was drying up faster than the last supplies of three year old grain. Hunger was spreading, desperate cannibalism was soon to come. Has your world ever totally fallen apart? Yeah, it was like that.
Jeremiah the prophet had been predicting this day for years. He saw how the royalty – the house of David, who claimed an eternal covenant of God’s favor and were supposed to be God’s good earthly ruler – how they squeezed the common people for every shekel, every bushel of grain, every acre of land. He saw the way the whole country turned from God to idols. Sure, the priests kept the Temple sacrifices running, but the temple had become a symbol of nationalistic political power rather than service to God. So it was easy to work other values into the program. They hadn’t yet heard Jesus’ teaching, “You cannot serve God and Mammon.” Jeremiah loudly pointed out that their path would doom them. His message is not unlike Greta Thunberg’s: staying on the present course will certainly mean disaster.
But people don’t want to hear that, they didn’t want to change. The king put Jeremiah under arrest in the barracks of his bodyguards. This is where this story takes place. Jeremiah hears the crazy, weird, unexpected word of God. Amid the shouts of, “Incoming!” as rocks and arrows came flying over the city walls, amid the scorn of the king and his court, amid his own depression and uncertainty, he thinks he hears God. “Your cousin Hanamel’s field is going into foreclosure. Buy it and bail him out.” Jeremiah was from a suburb of Jerusalem, Anathoth. He was the closest kinsman to Hanamel, and the law of redemption in Deuteronomy gave him the right and obligation to buy the field if Hanamel was in danger of losing it to creditors and it passing out of the family forever. Those of you from farming families might have that sense of ancestral connection to the land; it was built into the system in ancient Israel.
This is not a good deal. Jerusalem and the legal structure of the kingdom are doomed. The Babylonians already occupy Anathoth. Tragically, the modern Palestinian village is practically encircled by the Israeli separation wall. Hanamel’s offer is like buying beachfront property in the Bahamas just as hurricane Dorian was making landfall. Has God ever led you to do something that seemed to make zero sense? What then happened?
Hanamel shows up at Jeremiah’s prison, deed in hand. “And then I knew it was the word of the Lord,” Jeremiah says. That’s sometimes how God’s leading works – we have an intuitive, instinctual sense of something, and then the right person shows up and says the right thing, not knowing what has been going on in our minds and heart. So Jeremiah buys the field. At closing, everyone sees Jeremiah weighing out the silver, signing the deed, witnesses notarizing it, Jeremiah’s secretary Baruch filing one copy publicly and something unusual with another copy: putting another in a clay jar, a jar that can be hidden and preserved --- like the Dead Sea Scrolls were – until after the present disaster has passed.
What does this all mean? As a real estate investment, it’s the worst. The battering rams of the enemy army are at the gates. Really, what is Jeremiah doing? Crazy prophetic action. What is God doing?
Jeremiah lifts up his voice: “The Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, proclaims: Houses, fields and vineyards will again be bought in this land.” “I will bring Israel back to this place to live securely. They will be my people and I will be their God. I will give them one heart and one mind so that they may worship me all the days of their lives, for their own good and for the good of their children after them. I will make an everlasting covenant with them. I will put in their hearts a sense of awe for me so they won’t turn away from me. Fields will be bought, and deeds will be signed, sealed and witnessed. For I will bring them back from their captivity.” (Jer. 32:34-44, summarized).
Hope. Not a cocky-eyed optimism that things will get better. Not a surprising shift in the political scene. Not replacing a bad king with a good king. Hope isn’t denying reality. The Babylonians did destroy the city, temple, monarchy. As the psalmist says, do not hope in princes, in political events, in the invisible hand of the economy, but in God. Hope is rooted in God’s promise, God’s action, God’s love. As the apostle Paul said, “Whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.”
What does hope look like? That’s a great question, a question that invites us to look closely at the world, to become attentive to and aware of the often small sprouts of green breaking through the concrete. What is a situation you know that seems hopeless, yet you have seen people hope in God even in the midst of it?
Among the souvenirs of my trips to Israel and Palestine have been different websites to follow. One is called “The Good Shepherd Collective.” It is a tough page to follow, for practically every day, there is some new encroachment documented. In just the last couple of weeks, an access road from Palestinian villages to their fields has been trenched and destroyed, a shepherd’s goat herd shagged and scattered, homes searched in the middle of the night, water tanks punctured, and I don’t know how many houses demolished. The reasons given are variations on the theme that the Palestinians lack deeds, travel documents or building permits, and that Israeli colonists need land, roads and water. While many places in the world experience oppressive situations, Palestine is one I’ve seen first hand, and weighs on my heart. So I was surprised to read from them:
“In the aftermath of a day like today, when the Israeli military utterly dismantled large sections of the South Hebron Hills, homes were razed, people were beaten and arrested, children traumatized - we are challenged to maintain hope in the face of darkness. People ask us: How do you keep the faith that a better tomorrow is waiting upon the horizon?
“We have enough humility to maintain hope. This is crucial. Far too often, people confuse being hopeful for being naive. We fully understand the matrix of control Israel has methodically constructed around us; after all, it is the corrosive thread shot through the fabric of our lives. But we also understand the movement rising up around us. We see diverse movements of justice joining in solidarity in ways that weren't happening decades ago. Black and brown voices are pushing the plight of Palestinians onto the main stage. Our Jewish friends are taking real risks and making real sacrifices to usher in a new future of liberation. We see all of this because we choose to have hope. We don't let cynicism creep in and masquerade as wisdom. We don't minimize the efforts of those around us. We are courageous enough to have hope. We don't worry that people will think that we are silly or misguided for knowing that a better tomorrow awaits us. Good Shepherd Collective September 11 at 2:29 PM · “
What is your hopeless situation? Political cynicism, overload or despair? Whatever the doctor told you at that visit you had? The negative balance in your checkbook? The cold cup of coffee from the friend who walked away, not crying? Bulldozers flattening your home? Babylonians battering down your gates and burning your temple?
Take courage, God sees you. Grasp your neighbor’s hands, for God will use them to buttress your heart. Don’t curl up in fear, but open yourself to all the tiny signs of God’s faithfulness to you: food on your table, an apology tendered, a gorgeous sunset, a demonstration supporting asylum seekers, a friendly face greeting you in the fellowship hall, a wrong made right, a satisfying grade on an exam, another day of sobriety or a courageous vote. File these signs away, build up a stock in your heart. Share them with others, and file away the ones they share with you. Use them as the building blocks for a future world where peace is normal, caring is public policy, and love binds neighbors and strangers together through God.
Call to worship (from Ps. 91)
Leader: Living in the Most High’s shelter, camping in the Almighty’s shade, I say to the Lord:
People: “You are my refuge, my stronghold! You are my God – the One I trust!”
Leader: God will save you from the hunter’s trap, snares for your soul and body,
People: God’s faithfulness is a protective shield, guarding us like a hen guards her chicks. God will protect us with his feathers, we’ll find refuge under God’s wings.
Leader: Don’t be afraid of terrors at night, or arrows that fly in daylight; monsters that prowl in the dark, or destruction that ravages at noontime.
People: God tells us, “Because you are devoted to me, I’ll rescue you. I’ll protect you, because you honor my name. Whenever you cry out to me, I’ll answer.”
Leader: Hear, O people, the help of our God:
People: “I’ll be with you in troubling times. I’ll save and glorify you, even through your old age. I will forever show you my salvation!”
You have gathered us, gathered us to you, O God, in the midst of a world that seems to have gone crazy. So often, the news of oppression against your children, of destruction of our environment, of corruption in high places, of wars and rumors of war, weighs hard on us. We come to this place seeking quiet from the din; we come to one another seeking a warm heart of comfort; we come to you seeking meaning and hope for the future. Though your grace, grant us peace for today and hope for tomorrow. Amen.
Prayer of thanksgiving and dedication
Thank you, God, for giving us hope when all seems hopeless! Thank you for being faithful even when everyone around falls away! Thank you for being with us in our darkest nights, our deepest pits, our loneliest deserts! Thank you for drawing us together as your people in this time and place. In gratefulness, we offer our selves and our work, trusting you to do amazing things through all of us. Amen.
Mark brings a passion for Christian education that bears fruit in social justice. He has had a lifelong fascination with theology, with a particular emphasis on how Biblical hermeneutics shape personal and political action. Prior to coming to Plymouth, Mark served as pastor for Metropolitan Community Churches in Fort Collins, Cheyenne, and Rapid City. Read more.
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