The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
This is an auspicious date for our congregation…not because St. Patrick’s Day is this week (hence the great Celtic music)…not because we should “beware the Ides of March” tomorrow…but because we have been worshiping remotely for a full year.
And even as some of us are getting vaccinated, before we rush to celebrate the light at the end of a very long tunnel, we need to take stock of what we’ve been through together as families, as a congregation, a community, a nation, and a species. For some of us, the pandemic brought us in sight of possible death for the first time. “What if I get it…will I survive?” For others among us who are dealing with serious illnesses already, you may have wondered if it was safe to get ongoing treatments at the Cancer Center or the hospital. And some of us are dealing with a double grief of the death of a loved one in the midst of so much death, which is compounded by not begin able to mourn in the company of family and friends in a typical memorial service.
You may or may not know someone who has died as a result of the novel coronavirus, but the figures are staggering. Estimates are that 1 in 3 Americans know someone who has died of Covid. More Americans have died of Covid in one year than died in the Second World War, which for us lasted four years. Novel coronavirus deaths in America have exceeded 9/11 deaths by 127 times. About 1 in 624 Americans has died as a result of the virus, and we know that people of color have died in even greater numbers. 225 people have died of Covid in Larimer County…to put that in perspective if they were sitting here today, they would be overflowing from our sanctuary here at Plymouth. The global numbers are very hard to imagine…2.6 million people have died. I don’t even know how to put that in perspective.
All of us grieve in different ways. Culture and nationality have something to do with it, and the current administration has actually tried to put grieving into the national spotlight on February 22 with lighted candles outside the White House to remember those we’ve lost. I think that we, as a society, will need to come to grips with the collective trauma we’ve experienced.
I don’t know if you’ve heard the verb, “to keen,” but keening is a wailing lament for the dead. It comes from the Irish Gaelic…and from a culture that knows how to weep and mourn more expressively and openly than most Anglo-Saxon cultures do. When was the last time you heard of a ripping great wake for a white Congregationalist or Episcopalian? Doesn’t happen.
At my father’s memorial service in 1986, my younger brother, who had been unable to shed a tear at the time of my dad’s death, wept with abandon. It was deep, true, and healing. And my mother told him to pull himself together. I’ve learned a thing or two about grief since then, and I often tell families coming to a memorial service that this is a place that welcomes your tears. And so, I say to you: this is a place that welcomes your tears.
One of the things the church does right is to acknowledge and provide a setting, a container, for grief and mourning. We have ritual moments for saying a final goodbye and sending off our loved ones. We have prayers committing their souls to God’s care. This is critically important spiritually and emotionally. If we don’t acknowledge our grief and work through it, it will fester…the wound will become deeper and not lessen.
The Psalms provide so many examples of lament for us with the broadest sweep of emotion, from anger to dejection to bitterness to sorrow to regret. Have you been through the loss of a loved one? Most of us have. See if this sounds like something you experienced at some point in the process of grief:
“But I am like the deaf, who do not hear;
like the mute, who cannot speak.
Truly, I am like one who does not hear,
and in whose mouth is no retort.” (Ps. 38.13-14)
The numbness of grief is a very common experience, when your emotions are so raw and in overdrive that you just can’t take another thing in. We are overwhelmed and silenced by our grief. I know that feeling, and perhaps you do, too.
But silence is far from the only way we experience grief. The Psalmist demonstrates to us that we can shout out to God for help.
“Do not forsake me, O Lord;
O my God, do not be far from me;
make hast to help me,
O Lord, my salvation.” (Ps. 38.21-22)
You’ve undoubtedly seen those British World War II posters that say “Keep Calm and Carry On,” as well as all of the take-offs. One of my favorites is on the back of a sugar packet I picked up in a café in Italy, which says, “Keep Calm and prendi un caffe!” (That is a good example of the ways in which Anglo-Saxon and Italian cultures are very different!) But maybe we don’t have to keep it together with God…maybe God is ready for us to weep and stamp our feet and cry out loud. Many of us are really good at keeping a stiff upper lip, but there is a time and a place for lament…acknowledging that this is all a bit too much to handle on our own (whatever this happens to be). Lament can involve wailing, weeping, groaning, crying over a grief, whether it’s the loss of a loved one, dealing with a serious illness, isolation during a lockdown, not seeing grandkids or parents for a year, losing a job, missing the normality of life…any situation that causes you grief. In a few weeks, you will hear Jesus quote Psalm 22 from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” If Jesus can lament using the Psalms, it’s okay for us to do that, too.
Every one of us has encountered something that is too heavy to bear on our own. The good news is that you don’t have to carry it alone! (And that doesn’t mean taking it out on your family or colleagues or kicking the dog!) The genius of a lament in our setting is that it opens dialogue between you and God. Crying out to God in distress is a great way to begin! Psalms of lament are the largest category within this collection, and with good reason: being human is difficult…it’s hard…it is riddled with losses and griefs…not just for a few of us, but for all of us. The Psalmist usually circles back in a psalm of lament to include confidence in the ability of God to be present and to turn things around with us. The most succinct form I know is from Psalm 30:
“Weeping may linger in the night,
but joy comes with the morning.” (Ps. 30.5)
Last week I was in Santa Fe with two of my UCC CREDO colleagues, and we talked at length about the experience all of us have been through with this pandemic. One commented that for us who live though the pandemic, it will be like our parents or grandparents’ experience of living through the Great Depression. All of us were concerned about the collective trauma we’ve experienced. What is it like for you to internalize the catastrophic number of Covid deaths? Every one of us has felt the impact of the pandemic, personally and by extension. And I don’t think we should discount our own experiences during this time, even if at first glance you think of them as trivial.
As we take baby steps at coming back together, and as we live into the next year, we’ll continue to talk about where you are, how relying on God can help, and ways we can learn from our pandemic experiences to shape the future.
This has been a very long year. I thank you for your patience with the changes in our worship and in the life of our congregation, a life which continues to expand in new ways and in new directions.
Will you be with me in prayer? How long, O Lord, how long? We are so weary of confronting things in new ways, that your constancy is welcome and make us feel at home in you. Help us to sense your presence in palpable ways…help bear our burdens…bind up our wounds…give us hope for a new day.
© 2021 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact hal at plymouthucc.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.
Rev. Jane Anne preaches on Psalm 149 for Hymn Sing Sunday.
“Singing for Dear Life”
November 15, 2020
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
Praise the LORD! Sing to the LORD a new song;
sing God's praise in the assembly of the faithful!
2Let Israel celebrate its maker; l
et Zion's children rejoice in their the [Holy ONE, their ruler]!
3Let them praise God's name with dance;
let them sing [the Holy One's] praise with the drum and lyre!
4Because the Holy One is pleased with people of God,
God will beautify the poor with saving help.
5Let the faithful celebrate with glory; let them shout for joy on their beds.
6Let the high praises of God be in their mouths and a double-edged sword in their hands,
7t[for]revenge against the nations and punishment on the peoples,
8binding their rulers in chains and their officials in iron shackles,
9achieving the justice written against them.
That will be an honor for all God’s faithful people Praise the LORD! 
For the Word of God in scripture, for the Word of God among us, for the Word of God with us, Thanks be to God!
It seems that many, many years ago, during the time of the great Rabbi Shneyer Zalmon, that there was an old man who longed to study Torah. He had been orphaned as a child and was not able to complete his Hebrew school. As a young man he married and had a family, so all his time was taken with working to provide for his loved ones. Now his children were grown and had families of their own. It was just him and his wife and there was time….time to study. So, after searching for just the right teacher, listening to many scholars, he began to attend Sabbath school with Reb Zalmon.
On his first day he was so excited. He listened so intently, but as the lessons went on he grew more and more frustrated. His brows knit together. Big tears came to his eyes and even began to drip down his furrowed cheeks. As the lesson came to a close, he hung his head, shaking it sadly. The Rebbe had noticed this new one, this stranger, among the other students. He noticed his frustration and sadness. So Reb Zalmon called the man into his study after the lesson was over.
“Tell me your story,” said the Rebbe, kindly. And the old man poured out his longing to study the Torah, the obstacles he had encountered all his life, and his search for the right teacher to help him. “Many scholars have laughed at me for my inability to understand…but I heard that you befriend all men…so I chose you to be my teacher. I listened with joy today as you explained the Torah, yet I found that I still could not understand what you were saying. And my heart is broken. All my life I have been sustained by reciting the Psalms…but I long to understand the Torah. Tell me, what must I do to understand, Rebbe!” Tears were now streaming down the man’s face. Reb Zalmon put his hand on the man’s shoulder and said, “No more tears, my friend. It is the Sabbath and on the Sabbath we rejoice.”
The Rebbe continued, “What you heard today were the teachings on the Torah from the great Rabbi, may his name be preserved forever, the Baal Shem Tov. Since the words have not hit home for you, I will sing you a song that contains Baal Shem Tov’s thoughts.” And Reb Zalmon sang a sweet melody with beautiful lyrics and the man listened like a pillar of attention. He didn’t move an eyebrow. When the song was complete, his face was glowing with joy. “My soul has been transported. I understand, Rebbe! And now I feel worthy to be your student.”
And from then on Reb Zalmon always sang that melody at the end of his teachings as a way of clarifying the thoughts he had just shared on the Torah. And that’s the story of “The Rebbe’s Melody.”
As a preacher and one of your pastors, I wish I had a special song to sing at the end of each sermon to clarify all I have just said. But really isn’t that what hymn singing in our services can do if we listen carefully…. to the melodies as well as the words. Some of us don’t think of ourselves as singers…yet we can all be listeners and ponderers of lyrics. I venture to say that of some form or fashion music moves us all. Music teaches us in ways that mere words cannot…because it engages our bodies with movement and engages our emotions. It moves us from our heads to our hearts. Each week we, as a worship team, carefully choose the music to illumine the scriptures that we hear and the teachings in sermons. And I believe the hymns and songs and all the worship music stand along as mini-sermons/meditations on the word from scripture.
This week we heard Psalm 149, a psalm of praise to God, the Creator, the ultimate leader of all God’s people in the faithful assembly. In my progressive Christian theology that means to me ALL the people of the world, no matter their religious practice or lack thereof. And in this psalm we are reminded that because of all the faithful and beloved people of God, the poor and oppressed are “beautified”….therefore the faithful are given a “double-edged sword” to vindicate God’s ways of justice and peace and abundance, to defeat the nations and rulers whose ways are oppression and injustice. The war language is startling to us and is unusual for a psalm of praise. But I dare to read it this morning – even as I acknowledge the devastation of too many human holy wars down through the century – to remind us of the serious connection of singing and working for God’s realm of justice on this earth revealed to us in the Hebrew scriptures and in Jesus the Christ. We do not take literal weapons to work for God, instead we are called to acts of justice and non-violent resistance, kindness and sharing that are counter-cultural, counter-intuitive to the warring ways of humanity. And we are called to this understanding of our calling as people in the faithful assembly of the Holy One by a psalm, a song, a hymn!
What might the hymns we love, the hymns we sing – those familiar to us and those unfamiliar to us – be calling us to each week? How is God speaking to us, what is God speaking to us in our hymns? Comfort, yes….and also challenge! When we sing in worship we are singing for dear life! The dear life of God’s realm here and now among us and coming into being. I invite you as a preacher…if the scripture and the sermon do not make sense to you….look to the hymns!
Reb Zalmon knew about the mystery of God in scripture and the call of justice for all people when he sang to the old man. He knew it was an act of justice to illuminate God’ word for every person, so all may understand the love of God, when he sang:
All the angels, all the seraphim
Ask who God, [the Holy One], may be.
Ah woe, what can we reply?
“No thought can be attached to [God]
All the people ––– every nation –––
Ask where God, [the Holy One] may be.
Ah woe, what can we reply?
“No place is without God.” 
May it be so. Amen.
 Bible, Common English. CEB Common English Bible with Apocrypha - eBook [ePub] (Kindle Locations 24148-24157). Common English Bible. Kindle Edition.
 Yiddish Folktales, Beatrice Silverman Weinreich, ed., Leonard Wolf, trans.(New York, NY; Schocken Books, Inc., YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, 1988, 272.)
Holy One, sing to us like a mother lullabies of peace and comfort in our troubled times of pandemic, conflict and division. Sing to us your song of challenge and courage that we may stand against injustice and hatred with your fierce love. As we pray this morning with the words of our mouth, with the longings of our hearts and the music of our souls, we join you in lament for lives of loved ones lost, for the millions of beloved lives lost to the Covid 19 virus. We lift prayers imploring you to stand with us as seek to keep all safe from this illness, to heal all who are struggling with it, to protect those on the frontlines of essential workers who risk their own health and safety to serve other. We lift our prayers of lament for lives lost to the violence of racial injustice. Turn our hearts, Holy One, toward your realm of courageous love that is already here with us on earth. Open our eyes to see the joy of your love in Christ Jesus that is always present in beloved community, in the beauty of creation, in the eyes of your people.
All this we pray with the word of love Jesus taught us to use…
Our Father (and Mother) who art in heaven….
©The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, 2020 and beyond. May be reprinted with permission only.
Associate Minister Jane Anne Ferguson is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. Learn more about Jane Anne here.