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.
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
“Now every year, his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents didn’t know it.”
They grow-up so fast, don’t they?
Many of you have Christmas traditions and they are much like the tradition of Jesus family traveling in this story today. They help us mark the passing of time, they are filled with song, and they remind us how short life is and how important it is to love those around us. Christmas stands out among the holidays, for Christians and for secular celebrants alike, because its music, its colors, its symbols remind us of our loved ones, brings us back to our childhoods, and connects us with milestones in life more than any other holiday—for better and for worse.
Today, since we are focused on song and tradition of Christmas singing, in lieu of a long sermon, I am simply going to offer a simple reflection on this idea: There is a great importance to traditions like Christmas Carols and songs across different cultures as a way to take care of each other and to create milestones in life that remind us to slow down and to cherish our loved ones. Christmas music, like what we are singing today from around the world, is a deep connection to a sense of time and place.
These songs, the hymns of Christmas, serve as important reminders about life, love, and family—because, friends, life is so short!
Just a couple of days ago, after all, Jesus was born in a manger in Jerusalem. Just a couple of days ago the angels sang. Just a couple of days ago the Shepherds left their sheep unattended in the fields and went to worship Jesus. Christmas… Christmas Eve, Santa, the commotion, the presents, the tree, the lights, the family visiting. It all feels like it was just yesterday, doesn’t it!?
Today’s Scripture passage comes only verses after the Christmas Story, and yet time has accelerated to the point where Jesus has already started to teach, he has already claimed a sense of independence escaping from his parents, and as Scripture says, “Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.” Jesus is growing-up, and we can almost feel the subtext of the anxiety, the hope, the pride, and the many mixed emotions his parents must have had. How many of you are parents and relate to this? Our passage today is, in many ways, one of the human moments in the Jesus story—it is a moment when the Baby starts to turn into the man. It is the moment when all of Mary and Joseph’s joy starts to turn into fear, alarm, and change—fear for the future.
The irony or foreshadowing here is that Jesus gets lost teaching in the temple as a 12-year-old in Jerusalem—the very city and place where he will eventually be put to death for doing the very same thing as an adult.
Parenting, in my case gay uncling, or even watching your parents get older year after year… frailer perhaps… is part of life, but it is scary. Most of all, it means that we need to hold onto the sacred moments and the milestones in life like Christmas memories.
Christmas is different from Halloween, Easter, 4th of July, or even birthdays because it comes so close to the new year and is highly ritualized both by society and the church. Christmas, for better or worse, is how we measure our year and our memories of our loved ones. It is also how we measure our own adulting success. Are my cookies anything like grandma’s? Is my tree as beautiful as the one I remember growing-up?
Watching your kids open their Christmas presents, decorating your first tree with your spouse after getting married, baking cookies with grandma, food, song, culture, family time around the fire are all milestones to help us know the distances traveled in life.
There is a great scene in the classical musical Fiddler on the Roof when one of the daughters is getting married and the parents sit and sing softly to themselves a very deep song. The lyrics go like this:
Is this the little girl I carried,
Is this the little boy at play?
I don't remember growing older,
When did they?
When did she get to be a beauty,
When did he grow to be so tall?
Wasn't it yesterday when they were small?
Sunrise, sunset (x2),
Swiftly flow the days.
Seedlings turn overnight to sunflowers,
Blossoming even as we gaze.
Sunrise, sunset (x2),
Swiftly fly the years,
One season following another,
Laden with happiness and tears.
Growing-up, growing old, growing wise, growing tall (in my case short), growing in faith, growing in hope, growing in love… all of the ways in which we grow can be measured from Christmas to Christmas. Whether we love this holiday or resist it, for all of us, Christmas is a time of making, maintaining, and renewing memories.
The hymns we sing today, some familiar to us and others new, are for different cultures and people their memory-makers and milestone reminders.
By singing together, like the people did at the Passover Festivals in Jerusalem in Jesus’ time from our story today, we create milestones that maintain our memories and help us to cherish our loves ones even more and even better.
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph ("just Jake"), Associate Minister, came to Plymouth in 2014 having served in the national setting of the UCC on the board of Justice & Witness Ministries, the Coalition for LGBT Concerns, and the Chairperson of the Council for Youth and Young Adult Ministries (CYYAM). Jake has a passion for ecumenical work and has worked in a wide variety of churches and traditions. Read more about him on our staff page.
Ecclesiastes 3.1–11 & Isaiah 60.1–6
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC Fort Collins, Colorado
I’m not usually one to make New Year’s resolutions, in part because I am no good at keeping them. But we find ourselves together as a church on this last day of 2017, and it seems important to reflect on the past year and also to look ahead. And today is also the seventh day of Christmas, and though you’ll have to go outside to see “seven swans a-swimming,” we in the church still get to ponder the meanings and the potentials of Christmas, even if the presents under the tree have all been opened.
If there is -– as the writer of Ecclesiastes claims -– a time for all things, then what time is it now? For many of us it seems as if the bitterness of our political discourse over the last year has dominated our thinking and our action. It has imbued some of our daily lives with a sense of fear and anxiety. The threat of a nuclear war with North Korea, threats to deport Dreamers, creating physical or legal walls to keep immigrants out, American withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord, the take-back of financial support for the United Nations, the roll-back of protected national monument lands in Utah, the revelation of sexual abuse and harassment by many women, the moral bankruptcy of the religious right, the new tax law that enshrines corporate tax cuts in the hopes that some of the wealth will trickle down, the emasculation of the Environmental Protection Agency, the diminution of the role of science in federal agencies, and the “seven dirty words” that employees of the Centers for Disease Control are forbidden to use in agency budget documents. I’m not forbidden to use them: “science-based,” “fetus,” “transgender,” “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” and “evidence-based.”
Feeling anxious yet? We’re actually seeing some of that anxiety here at Plymouth. I’m hearing it from some of you in conversation, and together we are experiencing it in the nervousness within our congregational family system…it is infecting our common life…how could it not?
Many of us have never lived through a major war…some of you remember World War II and Korea and Vietnam, but for those of us who don’t remember those wars, Afghanistan and Iraq and the Gulf War seem very far away, perhaps because they were not fought by middle-class draftees. But in some ways, this time of national anxiety seems like a time of war…except that not all of us are on the same side. It seems like the fabric of our nation is fraying, and many of us have only lived through “a time to sew” and now we seem to be encountering “a time to tear” and to rend. Perhaps it feels like we are part of Isaiah’s prophecy: “Darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples.”
It is a time like this that the world most needs people like you. It is a time to summon courage…the courage that you may not yet have had the opportunity to test. It is a time that the world most needs the ethical and moral witness of progressive Christianity. It is a time that the world most needs congregations like Plymouth that will stand up, using the life and teachings of Jesus to help steer our nation back toward compassion, justice, peace, freedom, integrity, honesty, selflessness, and generosity.
What are the lessons we might derive during this time when the fabric frays? I think one of the lessons for middle-class folks is that it’s not all about us, that we have to become more active in community life and political life if we want to affect change. I think that for many of us, especially we who are comfortable, it will mean sacrifice for the common good. I think, to paraphrase John F. Kennedy, that it’s time not to ask what Plymouth can do for you, but to ask what you can do for Plymouth… because Plymouth continues to be one of the most critical voices and forces for progressive Christianity and progressive community in the region.
You have been entrusted with the light and love of Christ. I don’t care if you have three advanced degrees or if you never saw the inside of a college classroom, whether you have a three-figure income or whether you are barely making ends meet, whether you feel too old or too young to pitch in, whether your ancestors came from Germany or Georgia or Korea or Kansas. You have been entrusted with the love and light of Christ, not simply so that you can feel warm and comfortable, but so that you can share that love and light with others. It’s time for us to stop worrying about the beauty of our remodeled kitchens and second homes and the newest brewery and instead to start thinking more about the needs of others, the needs of our community, the needs of God’s world.
None of us has the luxury just to bask in the glow of our own wellbeing…because that glow is actually not ours, it is God’s. And that glow isn’t just to help us feel warmth and light…it is to provide warmth and light for God’s world.
You know on Christmas Eve, those of us in the chancel have the best seat in the house, because we get to experience the wave of candlelight that spreads up and down the pews to create a sea of light. One flame makes only small a difference in a dark sanctuary, but the warm glow of hundreds of candles illuminate it in an almost magical way. So it is with the light that each of us has been given to bear. To be sure, we can illumine a few shadowy places on our own, but together, we can become a beacon of hope.
It is easy for us to give ourselves over to despair, fear, hopelessness, and anxiety. But that is not the path you are called to follow as a bearer of Christ’s light. So, let’s get courageous as we finish one year and begin a new one. Let’s not shrink back from the call of our God to make a difference in the world. Let’s not recede into fear, but rather let us empower one another with faith and with light.
We can live our lives from a place of fear and scarcity or we can live our lives from a place of faith and abundance…we just can’t do both with the same time.
I leave you today with the “Amazing Peace: A Christmas Poem” by Maya Angelou (NY: Random House, 2005).
Thunder rumbles in the mountain passes
And lightning rattles the eaves of our houses.
Flood waters await us in our avenues.
Snow falls upon snow, falls upon snow to avalanche
Over unprotected villages.
The sky slips low and grey and threatening.
We question ourselves.
What have we done to so affront nature?
We worry, God.
Are you there? Are you there really?
Does the covenant you made with us still hold?
Into this climate of fear and apprehension, Christmas enters,
Streaming lights of joy, ringing bells of hope
And singing carols of forgiveness high up in the bright air.
The world is encouraged to come away from rancor,
Come the way of friendship.
It is the Glad Season.
Thunder ebbs to silence and lightning sleeps quietly in the corner.
Flood waters recede into memory.
Snow becomes a yielding cushion to aid us
As we make our way to higher ground.
Hope is born again in the faces of children
It rides on the shoulders of our aged as they walk into their sunsets.
Hope spreads around the earth. Brightening all things,
Even hate which crouches breeding in dark corridors.
In our joy, we think we hear a whisper.
At first it is too soft. Then only half heard.
We listen carefully as it gathers strength.
We hear a sweetness.
The word is Peace.
It is loud now. It is louder.
Louder than the explosion of bombs.
We tremble at the sound. We are thrilled by its presence.
It is what we have hungered for.
Not just the absence of war. But, true Peace.
A harmony of spirit, a comfort of courtesies.
Security for our beloveds and their beloveds.
We clap hands and welcome the Peace of Christmas.
We beckon this good season to wait a while with us.
We, Baptist and Buddhist, Methodist and Muslim, say come. Peace.
Come and fill us and our world with your majesty.
We, the Jew and the Jainist, the Catholic and the Confucian,
Implore you, to stay a while with us.
So we may learn by your shimmering light
How to look beyond complexion and see community.
It is Christmas time, a halting of hate time.
On this platform of peace, we can create a language
To translate ourselves to ourselves and to each other.
At this Holy Instant, we celebrate the Birth of Jesus Christ
Into the great religions of the world.
We jubilate the precious advent of trust.
We shout with glorious tongues at the coming of hope.
All the earth’s tribes loosen their voices
To celebrate the promise of Peace.
We, Angels and Mortals, Believers and Non-Believers,
Look heavenward and speak the word aloud.
Peace. We look at our world and speak the word aloud.
Peace. We look at each other, then into ourselves
And we say without shyness or apology or hesitation.
Peace, My Brother.
Peace, My Sister.
Peace, My Soul.
© 2017 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.
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