Healing Can HurtRead Now
Seventh Sunday in Easter – Memorial Day Sunday
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
I chose our scripture text today, before the tragic events of this week. It is a healing story from the gospel of John. Healing of people, of communities, of institutions and governments require change….sometimes revolutionary change….and established institutions rarely receive the invitation to change with open arms. The Spirit of God invites us into healing change as we hear this story of Jesus healing a man long ill.
1… there was a Jewish festival, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 2In Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate in the north city wall is a pool with the Aramaic name Bethsaida [which has become the name “Bethesda” in our times.] It had five covered porches, 3and a crowd of people who were sick, blind, lame, and paralyzed sat there. [The tradition around the pool was that an angel of God would come and stir up the water from time to time. If a person could be the first into the pool while the water was stirred up then the person would be healed.]
5A certain man was there who had been sick for thirty-eight years. 6When Jesus saw him lying there, knowing that he had already been there a long time, he asked him, "Do you want to get well?” 7The sick man answered him, "Sir, I don't have anyone who can put me in the water when it is stirred up. When I'm trying to get to it, someone else has gotten in ahead of me." 8Jesus said to him, "Get up! Pick up your mat and walk."9Immediately the man was well, and he picked up his mat and walked. Now that day was the Sabbath.
Bible, Common English. CEB Common English Bible with Apocrypha - eBook [ePub] (Kindle Locations 41438-41446).
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.
“Do you want to get well, to be healed?” What a question to ask someone who is has been lying by this healing pool, probably always a beggar, begging for his living, for thirty-eight years? It almost seems cruel, doesn’t it? Well, of course, he would want to be healed. But then the man’s answer is tentative….it almost seems to be an excuse for why he is not well, rather than a statement of longing to be well. Hmmmm….”Does he really want to be well? Why hasn’t he been able to rally the help to get into the healing pool?” There could be answers to that question. He’s too physically weak; he doesn’t have friends to help; he is used to how he is living and might not really believe in the healing of the pool after all this time; he doesn’t see a way out of his poverty other than begging. And of course, then we, in our 21st century cynicism ask….and if he did get into the pool, would it really heal him? Many questions arise about illness and wellness, about healing and help and wholeness from this at first seemingly simple ” Jesus does another miracle” story.
A few anthropological facts about the first century Mediterranean understanding of illness and wellness. Quoting from the Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John, “the main problem with sickness [in the time of Jesus] is the experience of the sick person being dislodged from his/her social moorings and social standing. Social interaction with family members, friends, neighbors, and village mates comes to a halt. To be healed is to be restored to one's social network. In the ancient Mediterranean world, one's state of being was more important than one's ability to act or function. Thus, the healers of that world focused on restoring a person to a valued state of being rather than to an ability to function.”
The healing miracle went beyond the physical ailment in this story. Jesus brought the man out of a state of isolation, living as an unhealed beggar at the edge of a healing pool, and gave him a chance to re-enter community. Jesus gives him the opportunity be healed from separateness, which is the New Testament definition of sin, the state of being separated or separating ourselves from the Holy within us and within the community of God? Jesus asks the man in this story, “Do you want to be get well, to be healed?” He answers much like we might out of a sense of guilt …”its not my fault, I’m not healed….this stopped me and then this.” Yet implicit in the evasive answers is hopefully a tentative yes…as well as the fear of what change healing might bring.
Do you want to be healed? Do I want to be healed? Do we want to be healed as a faith community, as a local community, as a nation? I know that sometimes we hear these gospel healing stories and they are seem like a fairy tale. It seems like Jesus says, ”Poof! You are well! Everything is sunshine and lollipops now!” But Jesus never says that because Jesus knows that healing involves the pain of change. Jesus says empowering things like, go your faith has made you well or take up your mat and walk or you are forgiven. When we have an “owee,” a cut on our hand, scrape on our shin, a sprained muscle, an arthritic joint, a cancer diagnosis, we probably all say, “yes, I want to be healed!” We want to function fully in the world again, but the journey is never without some pain.
Healing always hurts in some way. But not healing, staying ill or wounded, hurts worse! The man by the pool of Bethsaida was given new life in the healing words of Jesus. And as part of being healed, he had take responsibility for himself, pick up his own mat, and set off on the daunting journey of re-entering community. He had to stretch new muscles, emotionally, intellectually, as well as physically along the way. He had to face religious authorities and be proclaimed ritually clean, if he wanted to re-enter worship life in the temple. And in doing so he had to explain who healed him and face a scolding for carrying his mat on the Sabbath. Our establishment institutions never make healing easy. The man had to find his family, if they were still around, learn how to work and make a living, find somewhere to live. It’s a wonderful miracle that Jesus restored his physical wholeness giving him an entry back into community. Yet there was a journey with some discomfort ahead. And he was not a young man.
I ask again…Do you want to be healed? Do I? Do we? Does our world? Starting with ourselves, because it is really the only true change we can ever completely affect, are there parts of your life that need healing? Are you willing to take the healing journey even knowing there is discomfort, some growing pains, ahead? Take a moment just to take that in….
The Holy, Healing Spirit of God has brought us as a church community thus far through these last two very difficult years of pandemic. We have had setbacks, but we have been blessed in many ways. We have not, thus far, lost members to death from COVID. Thanks be to God! We have maintained worship and as much programming as possible. We may have had staff leave for a variety of reasons, but we have also had wonderful interim staff come to be with us and we have hired new staff to help us rebuild in new and creative ways. (Just an aside, staff camaraderie is better than it has ever been in my almost eight years here.) Yet I still want to say to us as a faith community…
Do we want to be healed? Do we want to do the vital healing work of rebuilding our programming, particularly in Christian Formation for all ages? Do we want to get back o serving again through mission and outreach in our wider community? Do we want to learn anew the joy of giving our financial resources to build the church that God is calling us to be? Sometimes I am not sure if we do….we are all really tired and worn down by the last two years of trauma. We have experienced a lot of pain and sorrow. Perhaps it feels easier to just sit by the pool doing what we know, not taking the risk to make a move toward the healing we want because we know deep down that God’s healing will bring change and that can cause us pain and grief.
My friends, Plymouth is never going to be like it was on March 8, 2020, the last Sunday that we met before lockdown. And that hurts, I know. We need to grieve and mourn that openly. However, if we answer the call of Jesus, “Do you want to get well?” with a yes…we will bring forward so much of our wonderful heritage in new forms and we will welcome new creativity in the process. New folks will join and are joining us. Yes, some of our church members have chosen to find other faith communities. Yes, we will not have a dedicated staff Director of Adult Christian Formation. Yes, we will soon have two full-time ministers instead to two fulltime and one part-time ministers. Yes, we will need to dig deep and discover how we can give of more financial resources to support our new strategic plan vision. Yes, these seem like hard realities. And they invite healing change! We can take this journey because we will be on it together with the Holy, Healing Spirit of God. We are not alone! We can be made whole in ways that we never thought possible. Will we take up our mats and walk?
The healing begins inside each of us….we each have to say yes to the healing of God…deliver our hurts and fears into God’s hands, surrender them and trust. We each need to do this on a personal level. We can’t point fingers at the system or the staff of any institution and say, “this needs to change so that I can be more comfortable.” It is up to each of us to take on the joyous and yet uncomfortable journey of healing so that as a whole faith community we can be healed.
As people called to the love and justice of Jesus, willing to make the healing journey, we can and will be leaders in the healing of our country’s culture of fear and violence. I would like to point fingers at those who oppose the gun safety laws that I believe, and many of you believe, desperately need to be enacted to stop the killing in our country. It makes me feel better to point fingers and say, “If only THEY would change…..” But pointing fingers doesn’t help us become a safer nation. We are called to some very hard healing work that must be done in very difficult conversations, with greater compassion and understanding than we think we can ever muster, for our gun safety laws to change. We are called to a depth of prayer we never knew existed. And we know that changing the laws is the tip of the iceberg in healing the soul of our nation that is so divided. So, I must ask myself, and ask you to ask yourselves, what am I willing to change with God’s healing help inside of me? What attitudes am I willing to ask God to heal? What risks am I willing to take that I never dreamed of, to be the change for justice and love that I want to see? To bring in the realm of God here in northern Colorado. We must each ask ourselves these hard questions for the sake of the growth of our own souls, the soul and mission of our church and the soul of our country. Do we want to get well? Do we want to be healed? How will we allow the Spirit of God to change, to heal, each of us and thus the whole of us? Amen and Amen.
©The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson, 2022 and beyond. May be reprinted with permission only.
Remember the WomenRead Now
An Easter Vision for AllRead Now
An Easter Vision for All
A sermon related to Rev. 21:1-5a
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a wedding partner adorned for the wedding. 3And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals. God will dwell with them; they will be God’s peoples, and the Holy One will be with them; 4 God will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.’ 5 And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new...’
For the Word in Scripture
For the Word among us
For the Word within us
Thanks be to God
When things are tough, how do we know it’s going to turn out?
How do we stay the course and keep hope?
When problems seem so large, how do we keep going?
When you are young and wondering how to find your place and deal with the big world, how do you keep confidence and seek direction?
When you are old and life is short, where do you look for meaning and possibility?
This year, I’ll turn 59.
Might sound young to some, old to others.
But it sure makes me reflect on more than half a century of living;
highs and lows, mistakes and learning, growth and gratitude.
Yet, in all my years, I’ve never seen a couple of years like our last two. What about you?
We’ve had a new worldwide pandemic, the old pandemic of racism unveiled anew to many, the increasing effects of climate change seen in hurricanes and wildfires, armed white vigilantes in the streets and the Capitol, even in grocery stores.
But if you think the last couple of years have been tough to view, it can’t compete with the biblical vision we know as The Revelation received by the anonymous author we refer to as John. John’s vision has beasts, a sea monster, plagues, horses of multiple colors, the archangel Michael fighting a red dragon, a giant pit, a pregnant woman, and a day of God’s wrath.
Likely in a trance or non-ordinary state of consciousness, John saw and recorded this vision. It is not for the faint of heart nor is it for simple literal interpretation. And there is a lot of lousy interpretation out there that claims The Revelation of John as its verification; end of the world stuff predicting dates and events and such. It’s generally poor Bible analysis and bad theology.
The Revelation is best approached with humility and a good understanding of Hebrew symbols and Hebrew prophecy. Seen this way, Revelation can become what it was for the people of John’s time and for many Christians over the centuries;
an inspiring, encouraging vision that helped them in bad times to keep going, to faithfully resist empire and the false gods of society.
Indeed, The Revelation received by John was an underdog story that served them as they faced tough challenges and big questions of history and of their lives.
As the last book of the Bible, it is a kind of symbolic end, not necessarily in the sense of time ending, but of purpose, the telos, the end toward which we travel, the meaning of history and life. Of that which is symbolic of that time, we know that John was referring to the Roman empire as the beast and anti-Christ Presence. The Pax Romana, the dominating peace of Rome, that way of empire was not the Peace of Christ. John knew that. The early Christians knew that.
So those early followers and communities of Christ were called to live differently, to resist the way of Caesar and choose the way of Jesus. But when Rome is so big, when the system seems so pervasive, or even when life takes an unexpected and unwelcome turn, how do you do deal with that?
Many of the faithful looked to The Revelation of John as an alternative vision of what ultimate power was at play and trusted in that Divine power. Through this story, they rejected the conventional menu of what was inevitable and cultivated an alternative consciousness of what was possible. In this, they found hope.
Hebrew scholars like Walter Brueggemann and theologians like the late great James Cone will tell you that Pharoah and Caesar’s greatest power is the belief in their ultimate power and the limitation of possibility to change the status quo. There is nothing new in the empire. There is no different future, only anxiety about a different future (which might inspire something like Make Rome Great Again).
Maybe that is the genius of the Medieval Dominican mystic Meister Eckhart when he wrote: "God is the newest thing there is, the youngest thing there is. God is the beginning and, if we are united to God, we become new again."
Sound strange, God as the newest thing?
Maybe being part of a historic Protestant denomination and a congregation with institutional history and a solid brick building makes it harder for us to know the God who is always new. Maybe we relate more to God as a fixed external absolute, as the Ancient of Days. Or maybe we can attribute it to the repeated habits of heritage. (It is said that the last seven words of the church are “We have never done it that way.”)
Yet like the new births of that come to our congregation, God comes, too. Not just as the birther, as the mother, but as the new birth itself, as the new itself.
And new in Revelation means different.
Did you hear it in the Scripture passage read?
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; John said.
Both for those of the first centuries of the ancient near East and for us, the new heaven and the new earth has not come. This morning’s news from Buffalo, New York, and many mornings’ news tell us that. Pharoah, Caesar, demonic conscious and unconscious systems of domination still have power. And they take root in human souls such that violence against another person or group or country becomes a siren song, a tragic temptation, an illusion of solution: if only we or I could just get rid of or control this ‘other.’ Projecting inner tensions and fears and insecurities onto the ‘other’ and making them an enemy, a dehumanized object is as old as Cain and Abel and at the core of what keeps humanity alienated, in conflict, and out of step with Divine Love.
The Revelation of John is not without its troubling aspects, yet ultimately tells a new, alternative story where empire is not the last word nor the only possibility. Connecting with that Divine alternative vision is the beginning of liberation for us all. Through song, ritual, prayers, or art of this liberating story of reversal, where empire is not ultimate or final, we can connect to the power of the story of a new heaven and the new earth. We can anticipate its full coming by tasting and expressing and living it now. We can participate in its emergence now. We can live the new now, and in so doing allow its call to stay rooted in us and sustain us in the long arc of history.
And for those being crushed and exploited by the empire, whether the oppressive empires of history or the inner oppressions of the wounded soul, Good News comes when a new vision of possibility is made visible and, like communion, taken in, even if only in part. When this taste of inner liberation comes, hope comes, affirmation comes, and fortifies the spirit for endurance and for liberating action.
As Choctaw nation music artist Red Eagle raps in his song, “Still Here,”
Wounded Knee And we still here
Sand Creek And we still here
Cortez And we still here
Slavery And we still here
Small Pox And we still here
Boarding Schools And we still here
Damn it feels good to be a native
Damn it feels good to be a native
Good News comes to those who hear and trust the God who says ‘See, I am making all things new...’ even in the midst of empire, injustice, and violence.
It comes when you truly hear Jesus say ‘the first shall be last, and the last shall be first.’
It comes when you know that, even if in the short term of history, it looks like the forces of death and oppression are winning, you know the story of the Resurrected One who came in a lowly stable, lived with, taught, and healed the lowly ones, and who, dying with the lowly ones, conquered even the power of death.
As we continue in the resonance of Easter, our sacred image from John’s Revelation reminds us that we arrive together in the end in a New Heaven and a New Earth. It is an Easter vision for all people and for all Creation.
In the words of Lyla June, Navajo Nation artist in her song All Nations Rise
“this time, it isn’t Indians versus Cowboys. No. This time it is all the beautiful races of humanity together on the SAME side and we are fighting to replace our fear with LOVE. This time bullets, arrows, and cannon balls won’t save us. The only weapons that are useful in this battle are the weapons of truth, faith, and compassion.”
Truth, faith, and compassion. The alternative way of Jesus.
Cultivating and living in these ways are how we participate in the coming of this Easter Vision for All, God’s Beloved Community, a New Heaven and a New Earth. This is what we do to be an Easter People amidst times such as these. This is what we do to allow God to dwell with mortals, Immanuel.
Finally, a brief word for our graduates from Sister Ilia Delio, a Sister of St. Francis and Professor at Georgetown University who says,
God is always new; life is always new. Every end is a new beginning and every arrival, a new departure. There are no dead ends in life unless we ourselves die in despair.
For you graduates, I say do not despair, but have faith in the God who says
‘See, I am making all things new...’
In the ValleyRead Now
May 8, 2022 – Mother’s Day, 4th Sunday of Easter
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
King James Version
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
3 He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
New Revised Standard Version
1 The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters;
3 he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil,
for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
6 Surely[e] goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.
Common English Bible
1The LORD is my shepherd. I lack nothing.
2He lets me rest in grassy meadows; he leads me to restful waters;
3he keeps me alive. He guides me in proper paths for the sake of his good name.
4Even when I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no danger because you are with me. Your rod and your staff-- they protect me.
5You set a table for me right in front of my enemies.
You bathe my head in oil; my cup is so full it spills over!
6Yes, goodness and faithful love will pursue me all the days of my life,
and I will live in the LORD's house as long as I live.
Psalms for Praying by Nan Merrill
O my Beloved, you are my shepherd, I shall not want;
You bring me to green pastures for rest
and lead me beside still waters renewing my spirit, You restore my soul.
You lead me in the path of goodness to follow Love’s Way.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow and of death, I am not afraid:
For you are ever with me; your rod and your staff they guide me;
They give me strength and comfort.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of all my fears;
you bless me with oil, my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life;
And I shall dwell in the heart of the Beloved forever.
Bobby McFerrin – The 23rd Psalm Lyrics
The Lord is my Shepherd, I have all I need,
She makes me lie down in green meadows,
Beside the still waters, She will lead.
She restores my soul, She rights my wrongs,
She leads me in a path of good things,
And fills my heart with songs.... (click link above for full lyrics)
This beloved psalm, used so often in funeral and memorial service settings, has great power to speak to us in the here and now. It is not a pie-in-the-sky promise of better times, it is not wishful thinking or vain hope or just pretty words. It is rock bottom faith in poetic metaphor. It is what we need to hear this morning as we walk in the valley of life.
Last week I drove to northern NM, the Abiqui area, for my spiritual direction training. Many of you have made that journey down 285 through Fairplay to Alamosa then Antonita and on into New Mexico where you can go east to Taos and west to Abiqui. You will remember that you drive many winding roads through mountain passes and at least three times come into broad, often sunny valleys. Perhaps you have driven similar terrain in other parts of the country. I love the winding roads that climb through mountains even it they can also be a bit stressful. I always catch my breath in delight when I first glimpse a valley. The wide-open spaciousness is awe-inspiring. Often a life-giving river or stream is winding its way through fields of crops or animals grazing. It seems a moment of grace. It is also true that a valley gets dark quicker at night as the sun sets behind mountains or hills. Especially if the valley is narrow rather than several miles wide. Living in a valley is a grace and it has its shadow times. Like life.
We are in a valley of shadow time in our country as we face the deep and extended polarization of conservative versus progressive political and cultural forces. It is scary, sometimes it seems very dark, and it is very uncomfortable. We experienced a deeper dive into the shadow of right verses left this week with the leak of the Supreme Court draft document regarding the next chapter on the historic 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that gave abortion rights to all those born into female bodies. The right to choose how to live in one’s own body if one is a uterus-having person seems to be threatened once again. We are in a waiting game to know the next outcome from our Supreme Court. We know this is not just a blow in some tit for tat political struggle for power between political parties. This is a blow to the rights of very real people many of whom are already marginalized by race, economics, education opportunities and gender or sexual orientation.
Just when we were beginning to get our heads and hearts around the on-going tragedy of the war in Ukraine, just as rhetoric is heating up around the fall midterm elections, we are plunged back into the shadow of shock and outrage over this leaked information. New griefs and fears bring up past griefs and fears, don’t they? We have hardly begun to heal from the shadow of the isolation and the economic instability of the pandemic, its constantly changing healthcare scene, the inevitable loss of so many loved ones in death whether or not from Covid. We have the shadow of losses in our own church through staff changes, worship service changes and some members moving to other faith communities, the effect these changes on our church budget. All of these losses and the myriad personal events in our lives plunge us, individually and collectively, into a valley of shadow.
I list these shadow making events not to have a pity party this morning but to offer the opportunity for individual and collective holy healing. Psalm 23 speaks to us in the shadowy valley of change and loss we are in. Yet its familiarity can obscure its relevance. The psalmist opens with two solid theological statements. “One: The Holy One, the Lord, the Lover and Source of all is my Shepherd.” Two: “I will not want, I lack nothing, I have all need.” These statements and the ensuring poetry that opens them up for exploration invite us into trust of with a capital T. The first statement tells us through metaphor who is the One to trust in the ever-changing landscape of life. The second statement tells us that we can trust we have what we need because Creating and Loving God is our guide through life, our protector, our abundant host.
In Biblical tradition the image of shepherd stands for one who guides, protects, and feeds the flock. In the ancient Near East, this image also had political connotations. It was not uncommon for a king, a sovereign, to be called a shepherd of the people. We remember King David, the shepherd boy called and named by God to be the king of Israel. The famous king, Hammurabi, also claimed the title shepherd on claims on the famous stele where Mesopotamian law code was written. So, the ancient psalmist has spun out the metaphor of the Holy One, the One God of the Hebrews, as a shepherd. A shepherd is a trustworthy guide, leading us in the right paths of life. A shepherd fiercely protects the flock from predators with a rod and a staff as the flock is led through dark valleys. A shepherd provides a place of safe rest and water for the journey. As the psalmist moves from the metaphor of being part of a flock to being human follower of the Shepherding God we hear that an abundant table of feast is set even in the presence of foes. There is anointing with healing, cleansing oil and a cup that overflows.
The biggest contemporary foe that I always think of when I read this psalm is fear. I know that fear is one of my biggest enemies and I am guessing that I am not alone in this. Fear is at the bottom of anger, of hatred, of the struggles for power, even of lashing out at our loved ones. We fear we will not get the love, the agency, the power, the attention we need. We fear we will not have the resources we need to feed our families and help them thrive.
Fear in and of itself is not good or bad. It can be instructive and lifesaving prompting us to run, to move out of destructive habits and wounding relationships. However, if we do not listen to fear, acknowledge it in a healthy manner, it can drive conflict between us individually and collectively. Rampant fear turns into power-hungry arrogance and aggression when it is not acknowledged. If we try to suppress fear or push it out of sight, it becomes destructive. We can act out of fear inappropriately. Caught in the grip of fear, we are fall easily into a scarcity mentality. We will not have enough. We will not have all we need. We will not be able to provide for our families. Scarcity thinking is the enemy of God’s abundance.
But, wait, you say….what about people who really do not have enough food, shelter, financial resources? What about when people have bombs raining down on them? What about the months when I am legitimately worried about paying the bills? When I have to change jobs? When someone I love is ill? When I am ill? When gas costs $4.00 plus a gallon? When I am asked to give to support the church and I don’t know if I can spare anything? What about the collective fear of conflict here in our own Plymouth family? What about the budget we passed on faith in January that seems extravagant because we cannot see – yet – how the year is going to work out? We can’t ignore all of that! Just “pray” it away, can we?
No, we can’t ignore all of that. However, as people of faith we can move with the psalmist in faith, putting all our fears into the loving gaze, the right guidance, the holy abundance and the transforming love of God, the Shepherd. We feel the pain of fear, ours and our siblings around the world, in the presence of God. We listen collectively and individually for guidance into paths that lead us into love and trusting the abundance providing what we need. Maybe not what we thought we needed, but what we truly need. In the Spirit, we pray and act for justice, work for the practical solutions that we are led to, not the ones in which we force things to happen purely on our own volition. We TRUST Love which is the source of creation. Even when the valley of life seems to be all shadow.
Remember, looking out over a valley from the top of mountain just before you start your descent? Sometimes you can see the shadows of the clouds moving across the terrain. You can see sun and shadow. Life is always sun and shadow. We know this in our own lives and in our life together at Plymouth. As we come back together after two years of pandemic fears and isolation, things can be unsettling. Nothing is exactly like it was before. We are doing a great deal of rebuilding in our programming, in our mission outreach, in our worship together, in our staff configurations, in our budgeting concerns. AND we celebrate with such joy seeing one another each week, hearing music sung together, sung by our ever-growing choir. Hearing the sound of children among us. Meeting and greeting new folks who discovered or re-discovered us through online streaming! Inaugurating a new climate justice ministry team. We have a world class scholar, theologian and mystic sharing wisdom with us this week as we welcome John Philip Newell to our community this coming Wednesday. There is a great deal of sun in the midst of all the shadows. Just like the sun coming out after the healing rain this morning. My friends, let us claim the faith of the psalmist. Our Shepherd God is always with us, pursuing us with goodness and loving-kindness throughout all our lives. In light and dark, and the shadows in between. Amen.
©The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson, 2022 and beyond. May be reprinted with permission only.
Paul the MysticRead Now
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
Many of us have, shall we say, “feelings” about Paul, asking ourselves whether he is an appalling or an appealing apostle. For some of us, we heard a lot of Paul growing up, assuming that all of the New Testament epistles attributed to him were actually written by Paul himself. The Letter to the Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, Philemon, and 1 Thessalonians were indeed written by Paul, but others clearly were not, and some have dubious authorship. It isn’t that they were forgeries, but rather they were written by the followers of Paul, perhaps a generation or two later, and it was a common convention in the ancient world to attribute a letter to a revered leader. Interestingly, much of what we find difficult about Paul (“Slaves, obey your earthly masters,” “Women should be silent in the churches.”) were not written by Paul himself.
Marcus Borg and Dom Crossan write, “There is more than one Paul in the New Testament…it is essential to place his letters in their historical context…His message—his teaching, his gospel—is grounded in his life-changing and sustaining experience of the risen Christ; Paul…is best understood as a Jewish Christ mystic.” And that brings us to today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles, often called the Damascus Road Story.
Last week, I had a fascinating conversation with one of our members about different ways of knowing and experiencing truth. Not everything is factual in a literal way, yet it still may be true. When we read scripture, as when we hear a parable, we know that it may not have happened exactly the way the storyteller relates it. We don’t actually know if there was a Good Samaritan or a Lost Sheep, but we know that the story is true, because we appreciate the wisdom it contains, namely that we should love our enemies and that we are loved by God. This is a “more than literal” reading of scripture. It is more than literal because it conveys a greater truth than a straightforward narrative account.
There is also experiential knowing, feeling something in your gut that you know to be true. If I were to give you a video camera and ask you to prove the depth of your love for your parent, you wouldn’t be able to film anything convincing at the heart of the matter…just the effects of your love, like running errands or giving a hug. The depth of feeling is something you experience in the depths of your being, and it is likely something you experience differently than anyone else, yet it is profoundly true.
So, what about this story of Saul/Paul’s radical experience? If there was a video camera there, do you think it would have captured what happened?
Mystics, like Paul, have a direct experience of God, not simply a knowledge or a belief in the divine. William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience, written 120 years ago, details different types of mystical experiences. He describes mystical experience as: transient (the experience is temporary), ineffable (beyond words), noetic (that the person has gained knowledge and insight), and passive (can’t be controlled with an on/off switch). All four of these characteristics define Paul’s experience on road to Damascus. Paul has a vision of a bright light, which James would call an illumination. The medieval mystic, Hildegard of Bingen, also had such visions which she called “reflections of the living light.” Mircea Eliade, a great scholar of comparative religions, called them “experiences of the golden world.” These are visual encounters with the holy that involve light.
John Philip Newell (who will be with us at Plymouth on May 11) suggests that we all have inner divine light, which is the very essence of life. In the Celtic tradition, creation itself is a theophany, a showing of the divine light. “Our job is not to create the light,” he says, “but of releasing the light that is already there.”
Interestingly, Saul doesn’t see a person, but radiant, blinding light, which is why he asks Jesus to identify himself, and he says, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” And those who were accompanying Saul don’t see the light, but they do hear a disembodied voice, so they had an auditory mystical experience.
What would we have seen if there had been a CCTV camera on the road to Damascus? Would we have seen a flash of light? Probably not, since Saul’s companions didn’t see it either. Would microphones have picked up the voice of Jesus speaking to Saul? Probably not. Does that mean it didn’t happen?
Nothing suggests that Saul ever met Jesus, the living man whom Marcus Borg describes as the pre-Easter Jesus. His sole experience is a direct encounter with the post-Easter Jesus, and it changes him forever.
Rather than rounding up followers of Jesus and carting them off to Jerusalem for punishment, Paul joins the rebel movement. Can you imagine what might cause such a radical transformation? There is ample evidence that whatever happened on the road to Damascus was a dramatic catalyst in changing Paul’s life. He shifts from becoming the hunter to the hunted, from the tool of religious establishment to a leader of the anti-imperial movement. Borg and Crossan write, “This sets up the fundamental opposition in Paul’s theology. Who is Lord, Jesus or empire? In Paul, the mystical experience of Jesus Christ as Lord led to the resistance to the imperial vision, and advocacy of a different vision of the way the world could be.” It is hard to imagine a greater transformation.
You all remember Plymouth’s mission statement, right? “It is our mission to worship God and help make God’s realm visible in the lives of people, individually and collectively, especially as it is set forth in the life, teachings, death, and living presence of Jesus Christ. We do this by inviting, transforming, and sending.” If you need a reminder, check out the very cool banner Anna Broskie made with a caterpillar, a chrysalis, and a butterfly to illustrate inviting, transforming, and sending.
What happens to Paul is a life-transforming chrysalis experience. A phenomenal transformation occurs in Paul’s life. It isn’t just a one-and-done experience, but rather one that shifts who Paul is, not only in name, but in the marrow of his being. That is what religious transformation is about: having our lives shift.
Not all of us see a blinding light, hear a clap of thunder, get hit by lightning. But I imagine that there are those among us who have had experiences of union with the divine or the presence of God that have shifted our directions. Have you had that kind of transformative experience? When I was in my 30s, I was sitting at the dining room table in our house in Boulder reading Dom Crossan’s book, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, and I paused for a moment, had the sense that there was a hand on my shoulder, and I heard a message: “You can do this.” A year later, I was switching careers and studying theology at Iliff. How about you? Have you ever just known something in your bones? What happened when you listened to it, considered it seriously, and changed course?
When Ananias came to Paul and laid his hands upon his eyes and something like scales or flakes fell from Paul’s eyes, and he could see again. That is part of the mystical transformation: gaining new sight. We sing these words and perhaps take them too lightly: “I once was lost, but now am found. Was blind, but now I see.” The gift of new sight is a powerful metaphor for a noetic experience that can help change our lives.
All of us can be transformed, and I would daresay that we need to be transformed. Maybe it isn’t a one-time occurrence, but rather a gradual process of realization and knowing. We can open ourselves to the presence of the holy and continue to be open. It may not be that we hear trumpets or see flashes of glaring light, but part of our human spiritual journey can involve knowing the numinous firsthand, without mediation. We can be open to letting God have her way with us and guide us. And that takes trust.
How have you experienced transformation and growth over your years? Major life events — confirmation, marriage, the birth of a child, joining a church, the loss of a loved one, illness, divorce, starting a new career, two years of pandemic — all of these can be occasions for transformation. In terms of your spiritual life, when have you felt closest to God, and when has your relationship seemed distant? One of the things about spiritual transformation is that there is no pressing it, demanding it, controlling it. It is a gift, and perhaps the best we can do is to stay open to the possibility, to delve into our faith in all the ways we can. Whether it is exploring a new spiritual practice, coming to learn about Celtic spirituality with John Philip Newell, spending time walking the labyrinth, or volunteering to help with Faith Family Hospitality.
Paul had an experience of the holy that was out on the road, not in the pew, and you may find your own mystical experience in the process of living your faith, even or especially if it is on a day other than Sunday. And may you release the divine light that is within you and help others to do the same.
May it be so. Amen.
© 2022 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact hal at plymouthucc.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
 Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The First Paul, (SF: HarperSanFrancisco, 2009), p. 13.
 ibid., p. 26.
I Love YouRead Now
Plymouth Congregational, UCC
Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
Our scripture today comes from the Gospel of John…it is part of Jesus’ long conversation and prayer with his disciples at the Last Supper. words of instruction and love which foreshadow his death. We hear the historical Jesus speaking to his disciples amid the impending crisis of his arrest. We hear Jesus speaking through the gospel writer of John to a late first century Jewish Christian community that was besieged with persecution from other Jews as well as the Roman empire. And we hear the Spirit of God speaking through Jesus, through the gospel writer, to us on this May morning, to our 21st century Body of Christ, Plymouth UCC. Let us listen through the filter of our strengths and struggles, our gifts and challenges, our fears, our hopes and dreams for the opportunities of God’s work through us.
As God, our loving Father and Mother, has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept God’s commandments and abide in God’s love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from God. You did not choose me, but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that God will give you whatever you ask in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.
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.
Do you feel chosen by Jesus to be God’s friend? To abide in God’s love and joy in such complete fullness that it bears the fruit of transformation in your life and in the lives of those around you? This is not a life just for saints and holy hermits. This is the life that God has for all of us to if we keep commandments of Jesus to love one another. Jesus tells us in our scripture, when we love one another, heeding all Jesus taught us about love, we are his friends and thus, friends of God. This love is reflexive, reciprocal, regenerative. As friends of the loving God, we are empowered to follow Jesus’ commands to choose love.
After the death of my mom in 2014, I was visiting my dad and had time to talk with him about death and life after death and heaven. Many of you know he was an ordained pastor and preacher, a theology professor. As we sat in the local coffee shop in his little town in Missouri, he confessed to me, “I do not know about heaven. But what I hope is that after death I will learn to love as God loves.” Perhaps this is the aspiration that Jesus has for us, as he did for his first century disciples and friends. To love as God loves. What might that look like? I think that is the invitation here.
It begins with knowing we are “chosen.” I struggle with that. I’m just an ordinary person, one among SO many, why would God notice me? Yet Jesus tells us we are each chosen to be friends. The idea is bigger than my brain can conceive. I can only tell you that I had an experience this week taught me about “being chosen.” I sat down to practice, emphasis on that word for I am a true beginner, to practice centering prayer. I got settled and centered. Then our dog, Bridey, stuck her nose in my lap, right in my open hands. I tried to gently push her away and stay centered. She did it again with her big purple toy bone. Again I tried to disengage… she persisted and finally draped herself across my lap putting her face in mine with “kisses.” I think God is like this… choosing us time and again… in our face at unexpected times with love…that we might first see as distraction. It might even be in the middle of some spiritual practice that you think you should “do” to get close to God. God is always with us, sometimes distracting and disrupting like a loving, playful dog – or cat – calling you to love.
Jesus says that we become friends by keeping the commands to love. In the midst of this we know we are chosen. It’s a bit circuitous. Looking concretely to examples of friendship in my life…the most life-giving friends, those relatively few people that are my closest, most tried and true friends, the one who have been with me through the nitty gritty of life and have loved me through it all … I have found in true friendship I seek to take on the best characteristics of my friends. If we take on the best characteristics of our true friends in this life, then as friends of God through Jesus, might we take on the characteristics of the loving God who has chosen us? My dad longed to love as God loves, which is a huge mystery that we will never finish exploring in this life or the next. I wonder if after 80+ years of practicing friendship with God through following Jesus he was closer than he thought.
I am reminded of another surprising experience of being chosen to love as God loves. In the spring of 2009 I was chosen by the pastor emeritus of the church I served in Denver to be part of the Rocky Mountain Conference Global Missions Team mission trip to Venezuela. Very early on a frosty Sunday morning in April, I met the other nine members mission trip team at DIA to set off for Miracaibo, VZ to partner in mission with our Venezuelan denominational partners, the United Evangelical Pentecostal Church of Venezeula or in the Spanish acronym, the UEPV. After being prayed over and anointed with oil by this same elder stateman pastor right at the United ticket counter, we took off. During our layover in Miami we walked from our gate to the International Concourse through a large airport art display. In huge glass cases there were six-to-seven-foot-high letters made of brilliantly colored flowers, like something off a New Year’s Day Rose Bowl parade float. They spelled out, “All You Need is Love”… Prophetic words.
Late that night we were met at the Maracaibo airport by our Venezuelan partners, included their bishop Gamaliel Lugos. It was a swarm of joy as people rushed to carry our bags and help us into cars. Over the course of the next ten days people of the UEPV, never failed to amaze me with their deep and enthusiastic engagement with life lived in and through the love of God. They lived large in a country riddled with poverty and injustice. Their love of Christ was inseparable from their political commitment to building a new world of justice in their country. They lived out Jesus’ preferential option for the poor and they were raising up women as leaders, working for women’s rights. They seemed to abide in God’s love to such an extent that joy was their MO, their modus operandi, each moment of their lives. As friends of God, they literally lived by the motto, “we will struggle, but we will not die.”
The bulk of our time was spent in the small town of Ospino in the foothills of the Andes. We stayed in a guest house, but our real home was a few blocks away in the small house of Gladys and Omar Gonzales, who hosted each of our meals. They gathered teams of people to prepare meals for our group of 10 or so as well as 6-8 Venezuelans who came from several areas in VZ to help with the week’s designated work project and to worship with us in the evening. They fed us using fresh fruit and vegetables from the Gonzales’ open air market next door, grilling arrepahas on their George Foreman grill, roasting meat in their backyard. Omar and Gladys became for us un familia, family. They laid down their lives for us. You do not have to die for to lay down your life for a friend. You do have to open your heart so wide that life might not always be convenient for you as you offer hospitality and love to others, but it will be joyful!
Two things I experienced in VZ through the ministry of the UEPV opened my eyes and heart to an expanded vision of being chosen as a friend by God’s love. The first was the circumstances of our work project on the finca, the farm owned by the denomination in Ospina. It was not a working farm but more of a community center for ministry. It had two or three buildings surrounded by a large amount of land…that was growing increasingly smaller because of squatters, people so poor that they grabbed any small piece of land they could to build shacks and grow a few vegetables. The shacks would literally spring up overnight. The UEPV could have legally prosecuted these people who stole the land from the finca. But they decided it was part of their ministry of Christ’s love to let the squatters have the land, to engage them as neighbors and invite them into their God’s community. A sacrificial decision, laying down their lives for friends. Ironically, our work project was to help build a wall around the remaining land so that the UEPV could continue their work of community ministry. That was the stated project and progress was made, however, the real work was made manifest in the smiles, laughter, …the halting sentences of banter and praise for a new post hole just dug made across the language barriers. Often there were songs echoing across the field strewn with mangoes falling off the trees and the sound children playing an impromptu baseball game with the mangoes too green to eat.
The second experience was the nightly worship at Iglesia Pentecostal de Los Olivos, the local UEPV church. This church had been taken out of the denomination by a fundamentalist pastor. He was now gone and the church, much to the relief of most of its members, was returning to the denomination. Our presence was the catalyst to invite UEPV folks from around VZ to join in the celebration of reunion and to commission new pastors for the church. Pastors brought their people from little churches in surrounding towns to welcome Los Olivos back to the UEPV vision of working for the poor and women’s rights, for working ecumenically with other denominations, and for creating indigenous Venezuelan worship using their songs and liturgies. The love in the very lively worship was palpable and we were embraced by it. On the last night they actually commissioned our beloved hosts, Gladys and Omar as the new lay pastors.
Each night Bishop Lugos spoke, reminding us that God is not only with us, God is in us, abiding in us, just as we abide in God. At the end of the service he would ask us to pass the peace, saying, ”I Love YOU.” It was intimidating at first. I didn’t really know these people or even know all the people on the mission team well. I didn’t speak Spanish. Yet I had to plunge in saying in English, I love you, I love you, … in Spanish, te quiero, te quiero. And it wasn’t fake or mushy or overly sentimental or even awkward. I had for a brief time been in the nitty gritty of life, with these folks, meals shared, walls built, prayers prayed, abiding in love across the barriers of language and culture in God’s love. It was true and real. If we were all together in our Plymouth sanctuary I would invite us break out of our white, Protestant, intellectual selves and try this practice. I think you would find God’s love in your face as viscerally as the dog kisses that interrupted my prayer time.
My friends, I tell you this longish story today to invite you to take the risk of knowing you, too, are chosen by God. Reach out. Accept the invitation. It will take you to some strange and wonderful and hard places. And it will be worth it. What is calling to you through the ministries of Plymouth that will empower and nurture your friendship with God? Jesus says to us, “I have chosen you in God’s love to be friends of God. Keep my commands to love and you will discover, even in this life, in your heart of hearts what it can means to love as God loves.” Amen.
©The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, 2021 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.
Welcoming the OutcastRead Now
Acts of the Apostles 8.26-40
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
For me, this is one of the most memorable stories in the New Testament, not because it is about Jesus himself, but rather because it is about how his disciples — how we — can follow a path of inclusion. For many years, the UCC was nearly alone in working to include LGBTQ folk in the life of the church, and this passage yields some profound messages about welcoming those whom some Christians consider outcasts or untouchables. I remember following Matthew Shepard’s death reading a memorial sermon given at St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral in Denver by Tom Troeger, who was my preaching professor at Iliff. Tom told a story about being a little kid and his playmates during recess would link hands and form a circular human chain, and the game consisted of having one child outside the circle trying to enter the circle and the other children trying to keep them from breaking in, while chanting, “You’re out! You’re out! You can’t come in!” Have you ever felt you were kept outside the circle that you wanted to break into? Most of us have. Insiders are often good at keeping the outsiders at bay, whether on the playground, the workplace, in church or society…some people even build physical walls.
Imagine what it was like for LGBTQ folks to be rejected and excluded by the church of their youth…of maybe you yourself felt that exclusion. It is horrific and spiritually damaging. But what if the church decided to turn the tables when we speak of inclusion and of extending the love of God? What if we opened our arms wide and chanted, “You’re in! You’re in! Love won’t let you go?”
The story of the Ethiopian eunuch has become even more relevant in American society in the past few years with the wide media coverage of police shootings of African-American women and men and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. (You may or may not be aware that I’ve been part of a Fort Collins clergy group that has been working with Fort Collins Police Services for six years on issues surrounding dialogue, training, and accountability with our community. Overall, our police are doing things pretty well.) It is stunning to read of yet another police shooting or killing of unarmed Black men and women. The message from some quarters seems to be that Black lives really don’t matter. And you know that ISN’T what our text today says.
When Philip stops on his way to Gaza and hears a Black man, an Ethiopian, reading aloud (as was the norm in the ancient world) he stops and asks if the man knows what he is reading about. And the reason Philip does that is because he knew that Black Lives Matter. They matter to God and they matter to us.
You don’t need to look very far to find African people in the Bible. Whether Pharaoh, Simon of Cyrene, or the Ethiopian eunuch, Black and brown people populate both testaments. The Ethiopian eunuch was not untouchable because he was Black…he was considered ritually impure because he had been castrated. Though he was a court official and was educated, reading the Hebrew scriptures, the Ethiopian eunuch could never become a full member of the Jewish tradition because of what they considered his ritual uncleanliness. So, why does the author of Acts include this account? Why does the writer describe this scene of encounter, teaching, baptism, and inclusion? Jesus himself and his early followers replaced the centrality of ritual purity with the core value of compassion. This story highlights a great departure from our roots in first century Temple Judaism, namely that our religious tradition is meant to welcome the other, the untouchable, to be part of God’s household. That is our goal…as yet unattained.
God has work for us to do around compassion and inclusion. Our White sisters and brothers have work to do around examining our privilege and acting to dismantle it. We, especially White Christians, need to do a lot more listening to our sisters and brothers of color about how they experience the world. The Interfaith Council and World Wisdoms Project presented a powerful presentation on Zoom hearing the stories of people of color here in Fort Collins while asking all of the White persons on the Zoom call to mute themselves and turn off their video cameras. It gave others a chance to be seen and heard. (You can find it on the World Wisdoms Project website.)
Deep repentance, metanoia, starts by listening, hearing the brokenness of American history played out in millions of lives. It continues to transformation: changes of heart and mind, shifts in our patterns of belief and behavior. And it concludes in wholeness, both for individuals and for societies. Our nation can never be whole while the wound of racism remains open. And it takes people like you, like all of us, working together to make a difference. It’s in the way we raise our children, talk to our neighbors, lift up our voices, march where and when necessary, and vote to affect social change.
In October, you will have the chance to listen deeply to the Rev. Traci Blackmon, who will be with us as our second Visiting Scholar. She is not only our associate general minister for justice and local church ministries but was also the pastor of a UCC congregation in Ferguson, Missouri, during the shooting of Michael Brown in 2014. She knows of what she speaks, and I hope you will join us to listen and to learn.
You may know the passage from Isaiah the Ethiopian was reading: it is the story of the suffering servant from Isaiah 53. Let me read to you from that prophecy: “By a perversion of justice he was taken away. Who could have imagined his future? For he was cut off from the land of the living.”
How many perversions of justice have we seen in this nation in regard to our Black sisters and brothers since 1619? How many Black men have been taken away unjustly by mass incarceration? How many Black men have been cut off from the land of the living by miscarriages of justice in applying the death penalty?
We need to end perversions of justice. We need to work toward our goal of listening to, including, and advocating for “the other.” We need to work on our own racism, which is rooted deeply in American culture.
Christians of privilege, which includes most of us in some form or fashion, must work toward collective salvation. As Paul said, we must “work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” I do not believe that we are beyond redemption as a people. And I know that redemption of our history of racism will take lots of hard work and it will take generations. So, let’s keep on working as midwives, helping to birth the kingdom of compassion, inclusion, and justice that Jesus proclaimed. Let us not say that we are too weary…because “You’re in! You’re in! God’s love won’t let you go!”
© 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.
 Philippians 2.12-13
Shepherds and SheepRead Now
4th Sunday of Easter; John 10.11-15
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. -NRSV
The Good Shepherd is a familiar and comforting image for God and for Jesus. Oddly so, because how many of us have contact with sheep and shepherds on a regular basis? When I looked up sheep farming in America, I found a website, sheep101.info, with this information:
According to the 2017 Census of Agriculture, there are 101,387 sheep farms in the United States. Large sheep operations, which own 80 percent of the sheep, are located primarily in the Western United States. Texas, California, and Colorado have the most sheep.[i]
Little did I know…I am too much of a city dweller. Perhaps, some of you come from sheep farming families here in this state and you are more familiar with real sheep and real shepherds. I had never been up close and personal with them until I traveled to Ireland and Scotland in 2009. I found sheep everywhere as I traveled the country roads or hiked the moors and hills.
The image of God as shepherd is ancient in our Judeo-Christian religious tradition. Psalm 23, possibly composed around 1000 BCE, is so familiar with that many of us can recite it from memory. The prophet, Ezekiel, was prophesying in the late 6th century BCE. In Ezekiel, chapter 34, the prophet speaks for God, shaming and condemning the false/bad shepherds who have led the people astray. Then God says:
As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. … I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, …[ii]
You can hear the echoes with the psalm and with John’s passage. (Back to Me)The Hebrew patriarchs, Abraham, Moses and David, the young king, were all shepherds. It is in this tradition that Jesus says in the gospel of John, “I am the good shepherd.” New Testament scholars tell us that the Greek word “good,” kalos, actually has a larger connotation that just “good” as in “does a good job.” It means “model.” “I am the “model shepherd.”
As God is shepherd, so is Jesus who models the very essence of being caretaker of the people. As caretaker, as shepherd, Jesus is gathering God’s people together under the overflowing love and protection of God. Jesus, as shepherd, is willing to lay down his life for God’s people. Since our text is from chapter 10 of the gospel, you can hear the writer’s foreshadowing of Jesus death which comes in chapter 19.
The literary and theological metaphor of God and Jesus in God’s image as shepherd, of God’s people as sheep, of the threats and dangers to God’s people, can be spun out in many ways. A pastor could preach a series of sermons on this metaphor. The very word, “pastor,” comes from a 14th century French word meaning shepherd and is related to the word pasture, where the sheep are fed. So what do we make of God as the heavenly shepherd and Jesus, God’s word made flesh, the shepherd who laid down his life for the God’s people? Who are the flock, the sheep? All people? The church? If a pastor is the shepherd, are the parishioners the sheep?
Some folks would object to being called sheep because sheep have a reputation for being not so smart! I read in one commentary that this reputation comes from cattle ranchers. Cattle are herded by being prodded literally and vocally from behind. If you stand behind a sheep and yell, it will simply go around and get behind you. Sheep want to be led from in front. They want to follow the voice of the shepherd they know and trust or the shepherd’s whistle to the sheep dogs. It is only when they are ill that they follow a stranger’s voice. Or refuse to follow and wander off into ravines or fall from a height. I happen to know as a pastor that some people like to be led with encouragement from in front, and some people from encouragement behind, and some from alongside. So, the sheep metaphor is definitely not literal when it comes to people!
Here is what I’d like us to consider today …. if the Lord is our shepherd…if as Jesus says in John, he is the model shepherd who will willingly and with no coercion lay down his life for the flock…if we as the church are God’s flock – and I mean “we”, pastors included and not set aside in an elevated position – then, are we listening to the shepherd’s call? And if so, how? Because the shepherd’s call leads us home, even thru dark valleys to a place of care and rest, flowing streams of love and green pastures of food for our souls. It leads us away from dangerous pitfalls and into the safety of transparent and loving community. In these tense and fractious times, we need to listen carefully to God’ call to community as we worship, as we meet on Zoom, as we pray for one another, as we listen to the guidance of our strategic planning team. We need to do our individual work of listening so that God can be gathering and leading us all in community. We need to be assuming the best of one another in this exhausting time of pandemic when we all have frayed nerves and are glimpsing the light at the end of the tunnel but can’t quite reach it yet. Otherwise, we will be like scattered sheep, wandering off on our own. God, the protector and gatherer of God’s people is calling us together through the voice of Jesus and through God’s Holy Spirit to new and renewed community as we begin to come out of isolation into safe gatherings and as we continue to grow our work together building God’s realm here and now in northern Colorado.
When I was in Scotland in 2009, I stayed for almost three weeks on a tidal island, the Isle of Erraid, in the Inner Hebrides with a spiritual community connected to the Findhorn community of northern Scotland. This community lived in stone lighthouse keeper houses, working and praying together and offering hospitality to people coming from the mainland for retreat. It was early October. And while I was there the time came for the annual sheep round up. As I hiked the island, I had seen many, many sheep. In my inexperience, I didn’t realize or take note that they were all part of the same flock. They belonged to a shepherd named John who lived nearby on the Isle of Mull. It was time to gather the sheep for yearly inoculations and for the lambs to be sold at market. The people of the Erraid community gathered one morning to help the shepherd round up the sheep by walking the 462 acres of the island, hills and bog land and beaches, in groups that herded any stray sheep to the center valley where the sheep dogs and the shepherd could gather them safely into the flock.
Before we left, we held what they called an “attunement.” For me, it was prayer. We stood in silence in the lovely chill of the morning air with the sun just beginning to warm things a bit. Gradually people began to offer up affirmations, “prayers”. “May we all go in safety. May the sheep be safely gathered in. May the mothers be comforted as they are separated from their lambs for the first time.” I was in awe…a little stunned that we were praying for sheep and then ashamed that I was stunned. Why wouldn’t we pray for sheep as creatures of God and the source of the shepherd’s livelihood?
Then off we went. I ended up with a group on a high bluff where I could see and hear the shepherd signaling the sheep dogs. It was amazing the way the dogs worked at his whistling commands, amazing how hard they worked to gather the sheep into a safe group. Suddenly all the biblical shepherd imagery I had ever heard became clear. At that moment I saw the shepherd as the Lord of Psalm 23… I first thought of the sheep dogs as the pastors trying to gather the flocks. On further reflection, I think the sheep dogs are more likely the Holy Spirit trying to gather us all into God’s fold.
Suddenly there was a huge gasp from the group I was with. An older ram, had gotten itself out on the ledge of a bluff across the way from us. The dogs were working frantically to help the sheep turn around and go back the safety. A couple of people were on the ground below waving their arms at the sheep to get its attention. One was trying to find a way to safely climb down to the ram. But even with all this effort of care, the ram backed itself into a corner and then fell to its death. And there was an even bigger gasp as we watched it fall. And tears in the eyes of the community.
Eventually we gathered in all the sheep and walked them home by a path to the barns where the inoculations began and the sorting of the lambs from the mothers. The mood was joyous that the sheep were all home. And it was tinged with sorrow for the old ram that was lost despite all the care and the work of the shepherd and his dogs and the people of the community. It was a living metaphor for me of the real-life workings of God and God’s people in community.
My friends, I challenge you today: take another look at the Lord as our shepherd, at Jesus as the model shepherd giving all he has to gather the flock, at the Holy Spirit eager to round us all up. Our nerves are frayed from a year of pandemic and the turmoil of politics and racism. We are feeling our frustrations keenly. Yet we are being called home to our souls, called to rest in prayer after a long time of struggle and loss, called by God’s love to gather in love with one another. I invite you this week to re-read Psalm 23, perhaps daily. Read it slowly, resting in each image. Read John 10.11-15 slowly, prayerfully, letting the image of the Jesus, the model shepherd, willing to call you back home by laying down his life for you in the dark valleys, sink deep within your heart. Remember that the Holy Spirit is animatedly gathering us together as God’s people even as we are still socially distanced. (Back to Me) Remember, pray, allow yourselves to be led home in peace! Amen.
©The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson, 2021 and beyond. May be reprinted with permission only
[ii] Ezekiel 34. 12,15-16a
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.
Disbelief in JoyRead Now
2nd Sunday of Easter
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
While they were saying these things, Jesus himself stood among them and said, "Peace be with you!" They were terrified and afraid. They thought they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, "Why are you [surprised and frightened]? Why are doubts arising in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet. It's really me! Touch me and see, for a ghost doesn't have flesh and bones like you see I have." As he said this, he showed them his hands and feet. [While in their joy, they were still wondering and disbelieving,] he said to them, "Do you have anything to eat?" They gave him a piece of baked fish. Taking it, he ate it in front of them.
Jesus said to them, "These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you--that everything written about me in the Law from Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms must be fulfilled." Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures. He said to them, "This is what is written: the Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, [and that repentance,] a change of heart and life for the forgiveness of sins must be preached, [be proclaimed,] in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. Look, I'm sending to you what my Father promised, but you are to stay in the city until you have been furnished with heavenly power, [power from on high.]" (A compilation of the text from the New Revised Standard Version and the Common English Version.)
Several years ago, a friend loaned me a short novel titled, Dinner With a Perfect Stranger; An Invitation Worth Considering by David Gregory. I don’t remember if I agreed with it all theologically, but the concept intrigued me! You can see where this is going, can’t you?
The book is about a businessman in his late thirties named Nick Cominsky. Nick, an overworked strategic planner for an environmental testing firm, receives a mysterious invitation among the rest of his business mail. “You are invited to a dinner with Jesus of Nazareth. Milano’s Restaurant. Tuesday, March 24. Eight o’clock.” The opening paragraph of the book reads: “I should have known better than to respond. My personal planner was full enough without accepting anonymous invitations to dine with religious leaders. Especially dead ones.”[i]
After determining, the invitation is not another outreach effort by the church down the street and still wondering if it is a prank by two of his work colleagues, Nick’s curiosity takes over. Against his better judgment, he takes another precious evening away from his wife and new baby girl and goes to dinner. At the restaurant he meets a nice-looking, dark-haired man with unusually piercing eyes, dressed in a sharp suit, a man who looks like he just got off work at Merrill Lynch, a man who seems to know all the wait staff at the restaurant intimately. A man who comfortably discusses everything from world religions to the existence of heaven and hell and who seems to know a disturbing amount about Nick’s personal life, including the scandal that is brewing in his company. A man who introduces himself as Jesus. The evening progresses through drinks to appetizers to salad and main course to dessert and coffee to paying the bill. Jesus picks up the check. Their conversation touches on the meaning of life, God, pain, faith, doubt. By the end of the evening, Nick, like the disciples surprised in that upper room, feels a deep joy he can’t understand, can’t quite believe or trust yet. He has spent the whole dinner skeptical, cynical, wondering, angry, captivated, confused. And now this odd joy. As he says goodbye to Jesus at his car, Jesus gives him a personal message and another invitation for continued conversation. The question hanging in the air for Nick is, will this dinner change his life? And how?
Imagine, being surprised with a personal dinner invitation from Jesus…would you go? What would you want to talk about? In the gospel story from Luke, the disciples gathered on that late Easter evening receive just such an impromptu surprise without the printed invitation. Suddenly Jesus is just in their midst! The very person they had come to grieve. They have gathered for a wake and the deceased walks in the door! They are surprised in their grief by joy – which is deeper and more mysterious than passing happiness. Isn’t it remarkable that when we are surprised by the mystery of joy, we can hardly trust it? We trust sadness, anger, frustration and doubt a whole lot more, than joy.
The gospel writer takes pains to let us know that this is not just a warm fuzzy moment in which they feel the presence of their old buddy, Jesus, as they toast his memory. Jesus shows up saying, “See my hands! See my feet! Still aren’t sure? Then let’s eat!” And after dinner, Jesus gives the disciples an invitation. Jesus says, “Everything I spoke to you has come to pass for the Messiah has to fulfill all that has been spoken about him in the scriptures.” Now remember what the test of truth is in the first century. Does the new truth reconcile with the old truths? Does it further reveal the old truths? Jesus’ message to the disciples is that all that has happened is consistent with God’s faithfulness throughout the scriptures and in history. Then he opens their minds to understand all that was written about him so they can trust in the faithfulness of God.
Here in the resurrected Jesus, the reality of Good Friday is joined to the reality of Easter. And not in a shallow, pie in the sky sort of way. This is not about correct doctrine or beyond a doubt, scientific, historical fact. It is deeper than that. This is about living into the redeeming and reconciling story of the everlasting God, made known in Jesus, a story that challenges the stories of the finite world. Scholar and minister, Barbara Essex writing in the Feasting on the Word commentary says: “In his book, Search for Common Ground, Howard Thurman reminds us that ‘the contradictions of life are not final or ultimate’ and that God is the giver of forgiveness and mercy, ever ready to offer shalom: peace, the possibility and promise that order, well-being, hope, compassion, and love might yet prevail.”[ii]
The Resurrected Christ joins Good Friday to Easter Sunday, pain and suffering, all the “no’s” of this life, stand in that upper room with the joy, the ultimate “yes” and shalom, of God. There in recognizable, yet unbelievable, human form, Jesus the Christ says “Peace be with you. All that has happened is consistent with God’s faithfulness. Now go and proclaim these things to the world, starting right where you are…”
Do you get a little squeamish with this proclaiming, witnessing thing? I can hear you protesting in your minds. “But isn’t proclaiming just for you preacher types? I mean, really. I don’t have any words for that sort of thing.” Do you associate witnessing and proclaiming with accosting people on street corners, handing out tracts with the four spiritual laws? Surprise! As followers of Jesus, we are all witnesses!
Traditionally it is more comfortable in the UCC to put our witnessing into actions for social justice, but not have to talk about our faith, what we trust. Listen carefully. Actions for social justice are most definitely the fruit of our experience with the Risen Christ. But Jesus doesn’t say to the disciples, “Go and proclaim social action!” Jesus says, “Because the anointed One has suffered and died and risen from the dead, go and proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins.” Because of the unbelievable joy and peace you have experienced, go and proclaim repentance, metanoia, turning back to God because the ancient scriptures tell us that God longs for us even more than we long for God! As joyfully unbelievable as that may seem! Listen to and live into God’s story, not the world’s story of dog-eat-dog competition, greed and revenge, because God is about mercy and forgiveness.
My friends, I believe we are made in God’s image and born into original blessing rather than into original sin. However, this human journey distracts us. We get fearful, blinded, and we turn away from God. Sin, hamartia, simply means turning away from God, turning away from living into God’s story. We do this is so many ways every day, knowingly and unknowingly. Often the church has encouraged us to make a long list of sins, the ways we turn away. But that leads to judging one another by our own personal lists rather than paying attention to turning back to God! Here is the joyful news! Our lists are unimportant. What is important is that God wants us, longs for us to turn back time and again to live in God’s story as it is fulfilled in Jesus, the Christ. And this is what we can proclaim!
Like those disciples in the upper room, we have witnessed God’s mercy and forgiveness and shalom through the scriptures and through community, the church of the Risen Christ. We can claim Jesus’ promise that we will be given the “power from on high” to proclaim the joy of turning back to the God of love and forgiveness. How? Through the Holy Spirit. A little biblical shorthand: Holy Spirit = Power. Empowering power, not controlling power, power that is life-giving not life-taking, power that disturbs the corrupt systems of this world, the systems we humans put in place we when are not living into God’s story. This is the power from on high that moves the church to social actions and proclamations in risky places that are in need of God’s love and justice. If we want the power to act, we must accept the power to proclaim. They are one and the same. Act for God’s love and justice and proclaim God’s forgiveness and mercy, compassion and shalom.
Living into God’s story brings the power of the Holy Spirit and brings shalom, the peace that Jesus proclaimed as he greeted the disciples in the upper room. Perhaps, God’s peace and God’s power are two sides of the same coin. Perhaps, one always comes with the other. I can trust that, disbelieving and wondering, in great joy. How about you? May the peace and joy and power of God known to us in Risen Christ be with you all. Amen.
©The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson, 2021 and beyond. May be reprinted with permission only.
[i] David Gregory, Dinner with a Perfect Stranger; An Invitation Worth Considering, (Waterbrook Press, Colorado Spring, CO, 2005, 1).
[ii] Barbara J. Essex, “Homiletical Perspective, Luke 24.36b-48, Third Sunday in Easter”, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2, Lent Through Eastertide, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, (Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 2008, 429).
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.
Looking UpRead Now
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
In all my ministry, I have never preached a sermon about the Ascension. Part of the reason is that it is a very odd story. I mean we just don’t see people being lifted up into the sky, and if you want to call that a mystery, that’s fine; if you want to call it a metaphor or a literary device, that’s fine. In terms of my own faith journey, it isn’t a terribly important story, but it has certainly received a lot of attention when it comes to art. And the artists didn’t have a lot to go on…you just heard it: “He was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.”
This fourteenth-century image by Giotto is in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, near Venice. Giotto and his assistants covered the inside of this amazing place with frescoes that many art historians say helped bring in the Renaissance in Italy. Obviously, Jesus is at the center of the image with little angelic beings that look as if they are encouraging, as if to say, “Go! Go! It’s that way!” And below Jesus are the two “men in white robes” mentioned in the text, each pointing upward. Mary, the mother of Jesus, is in characteristic blue on the center-left of the bottom register, with the rest of the crowd.
Rubens’s Ascension puts the viewpoint from underneath Jesus, again putting Jesus in the center of the scene. No crowd is shown, just two cherubs, and the viewer is part of those gathered and looking upward. The reds in Jesus’ robe and the yellow light pouring forth from the clouds tells you what is really important.
And even into the 20th century, Salavador Dalí shows Jesus being taken up into a heaven that looks almost like the center of a sunflower with the dove of the Holy Spirit facing him and a distinctly feminine onlooker, who I take to be the feminine face of God the Creator. Jesus is at the center and the crowd and the men in white robes are absent.
But the imagery hadn’t always been focused just on Jesus.
In this 13th century manuscript, the focus is on the disciples…the only part you see of Jesus is his feet.
I love this early manuscript image that shows not only Jesus’ nail-punctured feet, but even the footprints he left behind. And the crowd is looking up wondering.
But my favorite, in terms of what it says about the story from Acts, is a late 19th century painting by James Tissot.
It doesn’t even show Jesus’ feet. It’s all about the light permeating everyone in the painting, which in this case is the two men in white robes and the crowd. Look at the crowd and what they are doing…do they look like they have their “act” together? They look confused, mortified, wondering what they would do next! But the light is still among them.
I don’t think the story of the ascension is primarily about Jesus. You see, it comes at the very beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, and Jesus needs to finish his curtain-call after the resurrection and take his place. And that leaves the crowd of followers. And it leaves us.
Imagine yourself for a moment as one of Jesus’ early followers, and you’ve walked with him through the triumph of Palm Sunday’s entrance into Jerusalem, overturning the tables of the money-changers in the Temple, his betrayal, arrest, and crucifixion. What must they have thought after the crucifixion? The Jewish renewal movement he started was now doomed to fail, and the kingdom of God he proclaimed was nothing more than a pipe dream.
And then he came back, rose from the dead and was seen by his followers. They must have been so amazed and gleeful that he was back among them. But then it happened again: Jesus was gone. Or was he? Can’t you just imagine the disciples saying, “Well, now what?! We’re supposed to carry the news to Judea, Samaria, and the whole world! This isn’t what we signed up for! This is a whole new thing…it’s all different…it’s not what we were expecting!”
If you are like me, perhaps you’ve caught yourself at some time over the past three months saying, “Well, now what?! The church building is closed and we have to learn to livestream and handle Zoom meetings…This isn’t what we signed up for! This is a whole new thing…it’s all different…it’s not what we were expecting!” And we all know that this pandemic is nothing as earth-shaking as the disappearance of Jesus.
Have you ever thought what the first disciples were up against? Has it occurred to you that it was a miracle that this ragtag group of Jewish heretics started a movement that would grow into the largest religion on the planet? There are about 2.4 billion Christians in the world today.
What are we up against? A deadly virus without a cure that continues to spread around the globe. A president who is more concerned about how he looks than about the lives of US citizens. An economy that is at best volatile. Job losses surpassed only by the Great Depression. And closer to home, having to be church in the world, instead of being church together in this building.
If you only have one theological take-away from the pandemic let it be this: the church is not the building. The church is you and me and all of us together being the hands and feet, the eyes and ears of Christ in the world. It is you bringing groceries to elders and also having the grace to receive the gift of help. It is you supporting people with food and housing insecurity, immigrants, and those working on the border. It is you paying your whole pledge early so that we avoid cash flow problems. It is you supporting our beloved camp at La Foret, which has birthed more UCC ministers than anyplace I know. And as one of our elders of beloved memory, Bob Calkins, used to tell me: “Hal, it’s all about love.”
You are the love and the light, my friends, and I am so grateful that you are a part of the mission and ministry of Plymouth. You are the hands and feet of Christ in the world today. It’s hard being apart, and it won’t be forever. It’s not about the building…it’s about God’s love and the love we share. And love continues…. Christ’s light continues.
Part of the mystery of the growth of the church is contained in the light in Tissot’s painting. Amid the bedlam of humanity doing its best, and oftentimes failing, there is love and there is light. Keep shining bright, my friends!
© 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.
Images: public domain
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.