Rev. Ron Patterson
October 23, 2022
2 Timothy 4:6-8
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
Fort Collins, CO
Did you ever attend the reading of a will? Except for a few times on PBS mainly on the Mystery series, or in the pages of a book, I never did, did you?
Well, this morning, we attended the reading of a will or a memoir or a sort of life summary compiled by the apostle Paul, a short time, some say, before the Romans killed him. Paul was facing a death sentence, he was probably in jail and like a lot of people who know that their time is short, he turns around and takes a look at where he has been and then announces exactly where he believes he is headed.
And he makes a little statement that I pray to God every single person on this life journey will be able to make at some point on their pilgrimage. He says, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”
Now, I can’t imagine anything better or anything sweeter or anything more powerful than being able to come to the end of the line with a life affirmation like that one. That’s coming to the end of life on a high note. That’s truly claiming the crown of victory. And the question is how do you or I get there—how do we lay the foundation to build that sort of life? How do we live so that when we come to the end or to that point which our faith says is the real beginning, we can honestly say that we have fought the good fight, finished the race and kept the faith?
And since I want to be able to look back over my life and figure that it amounted to something, I really want to know how to do that and I hope you do too, so let me make three suggestions for us to consider and let me put these suggestions in the form of questions that together we can chew over with one another.
First, what fight are we in? If you want to be able to say that you have fought the good fight, take a long hard look at what you are fighting for and what you invest your energy and your passion and your time in supporting. This is a Consecration Sunday question, it seems to me, so let’s ask it as individuals and as a congregation. What fight are we in?
There’s lots of things people seem willing to fight for. So called second amendment rights make some people crazy violent. Ideas about freedom based on fear make people willing to mob others. Lies seem to transition into accepted truth in the hands of clever politicians empowered by bad religion and dirty dollars. Am I the only one surprised almost daily at the creative depth of nasty negativity?
A wise friend suggested to me once that it is always important to choose your battles, and while I have opinions on almost everything — opinions that would probably alienate more people that I could convince, let me suggest that fighting the good fight is not about fighting, but about figuring out which of those daily struggles are good and loving and compassionate and those actions and attitudes which reflect the way of Jesus.
If you just want to fight, get mad. Put a nasty profane flag on your truck and drive up and down on College Avenue. If you want to fight, smear those who disagree with you. If you want to fight, raise up the rabble and make a fuss to defend your turf. If you want to battle, organize the most selfish interests or the lowest common denominator of a bunch of fear filled people and you will surely make lots of headlines — it happens every day. If “not in my back yard” is the only fight I’m willing to fight then by the light of God’s love, I am truly in a sad spiritual state.
On the other hand, if you or I want to fight the good fight, apply the Gospel. Include self-sacrifice and some patience and some moral struggle. If you want to fight the good fight, tuck the story of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal child into your memory bank and take on the issues that come your way with a mixture of remembering that God loves you no matter what and because of that we had better fight hard to love others with the same intensity — no matter what color or nationality or political party they happen to represent. It’s not easy, but if you want to be able to say you have fought the good fight, make sure you are in a good fight and not just a fight.
Second, what race are we running? Another great question for Consecration Sunday. There are a lot of races out there. I know quite a few of you have starred in some important races. New discoveries, new technologies, an expansion of scientific knowledge, new ways of understanding the human condition. This congregation is full of academics and other star performers in all sorts of races. Repeatedly, I have been amazed and filled with joy as I catch glimpses of the life story of so many of you.
But since life is a journey and not a destination, I think the challenge of every single day, no matter where we are on that journey is to determine which race we are running and to decide if that race is worth winning.
I don’t need to convince any of you, I think, that a great deal of life is about busyness. All of us have things we need to do. All of us need to make a living and take care of our responsibilities — that’s just a fact, but when those needs take over our lives and cause us to loose sight of why we are doing those things we can suddenly find ourselves running not in the human race, but in the rat race.
Let me share a story. There was a man in the community in Florida where we lived who had a successful career. Every year, he would buy thousands of new shoes for children and if you ask him why he did it, he would tell you that when he was a little boy, his mom and dad couldn’t afford shoes and he was ashamed to go to school. And then he would get big smile on his face and say: “All God’s children need shoes.” Now that’s a simple race, but that is a race that by the grace of God he ran and that was a race worth winning. What race are you running?
And let me make it clear. This is not a competitive race. It is not about wealth or spectacular results. It is about putting yourself out there somewhere to do something that leaves some corner of this good earth however small a bit better for your having passed that way.
A couple of weeks ago, I showed up one morning at the church building and discovered two members of this congregation painting the curb stones at the entrances with red paint, to remind people that those entrances need to be kept clear for emergency vehicles. They were doing something they could because it needed doing. They are not professional painters, no one hired them to do it, they did it because it needed doing. Is there some race you need to run? Are there things you need to do, sometimes simple, maybe easy, but that need doing and that might set a pattern of behavior that could lead you toward the sort of miracle making that makes this race of life worth running?
Third, and final question on this Consecration Sunday: what faith are we keeping? And here I suppose that someone who doesn’t know me very well would expect me to lay out a list of the things you or I need to believe to be keepers of the faith. Well, the longer I live the shorter that list becomes. Keeping the faith is not about doctrine or a list of rules. It is not about how much I know about the Bible or how carefully I follow the tradition into which I was born.
When I meet Jesus, I do not expect to be quizzed over how well I understood the Nicene Creed or how perfectly I taught the tenets of Reformed Protestant Christianity. Several years ago at Charnley’s brother’s wedding, the priest, who was a person of gentle faith, invited all of the members of the bridal party — whether they were Catholic or Protestant — to share in Communion as a beautiful affirmation of faith, for a family which included Roman Catholics and Protestants.
That was the plan as he explained it to the bridal party, but on the day of the wedding as he went to serve my Protestant Sister-in-law, one of the members of his congregation came to his side and in a clear stage whisper said: “Father, she’s not of the faith” — to prevent her priest from making a terrible mistake and serving communion to a Protestant.
That priest knew that faith is not a holy relic of the past. Faith is not a shrine to what some other generation of people believed sacred. Faith has nothing to do with labels. Faith is loving as Jesus loved. Faith is caring as Jesus cared. Faith is giving to a hungry person the bread they need to live. Keeping the faith is living the faith in any way we can.
So then, let’s take a look. Let’s take a look at our lives. Let’s turn around and take a long look. Are we fighting the right fight? Are we running the best race? Are we keeping a faith that makes a difference? May the light of God’s love in Jesus find a home and a heart in this congregation and our loving. Amen.
Sermon related to Exodus 3:13-15
We are a tradition of continuing revelation. Spirit comes to us as an unfolding of new understandings of faith, new expressions of faithful living, and the opening of possibilities for compassion in action.
But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” 14 God said to Moses, “I am who I am.”[a] He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’ ” 15 God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord,[b] the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’:
This is my name forever,
and this my title for all generations.
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
The Rev. Otis Moss the III stepped to the podium. Over 3,000 of us at our 2009 national UCC gathering quieted ourselves to listen. Starting off slowly, as is often the case with the style of preaching common in many African American churches, the Senior Minister of Trinity UCC in Chicago, picked up speed as he spoke of punctuation.
That’s right, punctuation. Isn’t that inspiring and exciting? Yes, punctuation; Semi colons, quotation marks, apostrophes, parentheses, and….hold on to your seat….. brackets!
But punctuation can be relevant and inspiring when the dominant story, the status quo power or culture or system insists on a period while the Good News of God insists on a comma. To the drug addict to whom the incarceration system says ‘three strikes and you are out,” period, the Good News of God says, comma, change your direction, comma, "God is making all things new." To the Hebrews enslaved, Pharaoh says work without rest or wage for the Empire, period, but the Good News of God says, comma, "together you shall walk out of bondage," comma, together you shall journey to liberation and a new way of community. To the teacher and healer and prophet Jesus, the Roman Empire said, your way is ended, period, the Good News of God says, comma, not so fast, comma, there is life and resurrection stronger than death, comma, stronger than violence and the desire to dominate. To the broken spirit whose inner critical voice says, that’s it, there’s no hope for you, no meaning, period, the Good News of God says, comma, “my Grace is sufficient,” comma, “nothing is impossible for God.”
This is the kind of proclamation by the Rev. Moss that had us on our feet by the end of his sermon as we felt the Spirit flow through his speaking that our God is in the comma business of making things new, healed and hopeful, and resistant to the period makers of the world, those who choose and serve a status quo of fear, hard-heartedness, injustice and cynicism.
I recently thought of that message delivered by Rev. Moss because it still lives in me, especially when I feel or I see the drift toward hopelessness and loss of possibility. I feel and see that drift now. Climate change marches on, women’s rights to control their bodies is curtailed, aggressive war mongers on the march, the weapons of war sold to angry and hopeless citizens and then tragically used for mayhem and mass death.
Over twenty years ago our national denomination, the United Church of Christ, was looking for a phrase to define itself. They found the perfect words from the late Gracie Allen, the wife and comic partner of the late comedian George Burns. A brilliant and perceptive woman in her own right, she left a message in her papers to be discovered by her husband after her death that has become the motto for the United Church of Christ: “Never put a period where God has placed a comma.”
Gracie was encouraging George to remember that life had many chapters. George was 68 when Gracie died. Rather than place a period after his career, Burns went on to star in a number of movies, including playing God, twice. He died at age 100, having lived the life of the comma.
Our faith is that kind of faith. Our church is that kind of church. Because many of us come from other kinds of churches or may have few connections with the larger network that we are as UCC’ers, I’d like to share about how a characteristic way of being together as the United Church of Christ embodies more of a comma faith than one of periods, one where Spirit writes new chapters, where Spirit comes to us as an unfolding of new understandings, new expressions of faithful living, and new possibilities for compassion and justice in action.
There are threads of this comma faith woven into the UCC fabric from all the branches of our family tree that came together in 1957 to become one network. And it comes right out of our ancient faith stories in Scripture.
Our Scripture story today has Moses at work. Perhaps Moses just wanted an ordinary day at work, a simple day of watching and wandering with the sheep, period. But Spirit seemed to have a different plan. The bush that was burning, comma, but was not consumed, appeared to him and he turned aside to an encounter with God. In this encounter, Moses asks the name of God. In these ancient stories, having the true or secret name of the deity, gave power to the namer to invoke and use the deity’s power. And, here, God refuses to be boxed in by a simple title, a single nature or power, or even by time. The Hebrew wordplay here can be translated as “I am what I am,” “I will be who I will be,” or, most simply, “I will be whoever I will be.” God even refuses to box God’s Self in with a name. No periods here, just a commas. God is free to become and be.
This is all about commas, all about an openness to the Divine Mystery of what might be coming, what might emerge, what might be needed, what might be chosen, what new thing might be revealed.
While reflective and rational Greek philosophy leaned toward a more static even impassive understanding of the Divine (the all everything list), and that strongly influenced Christian tradition in the reading of Scripture, Hebrew understandings of God actually were more about the lived experience of God and were open to the Divine as moving, morphing, and changing. Like the Hebrew people themselves journeying to the Promised Land or back from exile, or like the families of Abraham and Sarah, or Ruth and Naomi, or Joseph and Mary, or like the Wise Ones from the East following a star, it seems the people were on an unfolding journey, discerning the new place that Spirit called them to go in order to serve life at that time, in that situation.
In Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, where he is portrayed by Matthew’s community as the new Moses, you can hear the new being indicated by the phrase, "You have heard it said, (comma) but I say……" There is innovation here, going beyond something like "eye for any eye," which in its day helped stop escalating revenge cycles, to something that went into the inner work that stops cycles of revenge and separation altogether, "love your enemy."
You see, although our Bible has a back cover, and the tradition has not admitted new books into the Bible for over a millennium and a half, that does not mean that God is mute, that Spirit stopped moving or speaking at the time of Jesus or the time of Moses.
God is still Speaking, we say.
And we, as the UCC, are trying to listen. We have done it before.
In 1620, on their way to North America, pilgrims seeking spiritual freedom heard their pastor, John Robinson, say “God has yet more light and truth to break forth out of his holy Word." This is a statement of the continuing revelation that is characteristic of the UCC, the assumption that there is more understanding to come. It is a way of seeking and holding truth that keeps us open to reading our Scriptures and mining our tradition in new ways as our understandings and experience change. This kind of way has encouraged us, not exclusively, but characteristically to be on the cutting edge of social change in the church.
Congregationalists were among the first Americans to take a stand against slavery. In 1700, the Rev. Samuel Sewall wrote the first anti-slavery pamphlet in America, "The Selling of Joseph" laying the foundation for the abolitionist movement that came more than a century later. In 1773, five thousand angry colonists gathered in the Old South Meeting House in Boston to demand repeal of an unjust tax on tea and inspired what might be called the first act of civil disobedience in U.S. history—the "Boston Tea Party."
In 1773, a young member of the Old South congregation, Phillis Wheatley, becomes the first published African American author. Poems on Various Subjects was a sensation, and Wheatley gained her freedom from slavery soon after. In 1785, Lemuel Haynes is the first African American ordained by a Protestant denomination. In 1839, enslaved Africans broke their chains and seized control of the schooner Amistad. Their freedom was short-lived, and they were held in a Connecticut jail while the ship's owners sued to have them returned as property. But Congregationalists and other Christians organized a campaign to free the captives. The case became a defining moment for the movement to abolish slavery as the Supreme Court ruled the captives are not property, and the Africans regain their freedom.
In 1840, a meeting of pastors in Missouri formed the first united church in U.S. history—the Evangelical Synod. It united two Protestant traditions that had been separated for centuries: Lutheran and Reformed. In 1846, Lewis Tappan, one of the Amistad anti-slavery organizers, organized the American Missionary Association--the first anti-slavery society in the U.S. with multiracial leadership. In 1853, Antoinette Brown became the first woman since New Testament times ordained as a Christian minister, and perhaps the first woman in history elected to serve a Christian congregation as pastor. In 1897, Congregationalist Washington Gladden was one of the first leaders of the Social Gospel movement—which denounced injustice and the exploitation of the poor amidst a new industrializing and urbanizing society.
In 1959, Southern television stations impose a news blackout on the growing civil rights movement, and Martin Luther King Jr. asked the UCC to intervene. Everett Parker of the UCC's Office of Communication organizes churches and won in Federal court a ruling that the airwaves are public, not private property. In 1972, the UCC's Golden Gate Association ordained the first openly gay person as a minister in a mainline Protestant denomination: the Rev. William R. Johnson. In 1976, General Synod elected the Rev. Joseph H. Evans president of the United Church of Christ, the first African American leader of a racially integrated mainline church in the United States. In 1995, the United Church of Christ publishes The New Century Hymnal—the only hymnal released by a Christian church that honored in equal measure both male and female images of God. In 2005, the General Synod called for full Marriage Equality, marking the first time that one of the nation's mainline churches expressed support of marriages for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons.
I share these not to boost our UCC egos, but to en-courage our spirits with so much of the country and some churches wanting to go backward, to fix the faith and the culture in a less inclusive and less just past with a period. I share this list to encourage us that the God of commas has been and is at work even amidst the current appearance of reactionary, restrictive, and violent forces.
And what about us? How is our comma faith? Where have we placed a period where God would place a comma? Where have we precluded possibility, or sidled up to cynicism, or jockeyed into judgment, or given in to impatience in such a way that we placed a period where Spirit was seeking a comma, a new way through, a re-visioned path, a resurrection?
My guess is that often we protect our hearts with the period placing energies of judgment or criticism, or of cynicism and passivity. Or we protect ourselves and calm our fears in the midst of the anxiety of change by focusing on too much order. We forget that God can work through all of this, even the right kind of chaos (“good trouble” the late John Lewis called it). We forget that God may have another timeline or another way to get where we are going.
I have not been here long enough to know the full history of Plymouth church and how you have found ways to do something and become something that others would have thought not possible. But, I did see a video on our website where the late Ray Becker narrates the story that recounted the German speaking ancestors of this church escaping Czar Alexander II leaving their familiar homes in Russia to come all this way, that showed them starting a church without a pastor, that showed them coming together with only 64 members to build a church building and then the faith years later to sell that building and move all the way out of town to Prospect Avenue where they built the whole shell of the church themselves, where we now worship, when they had 184 members. And now, to meet a challenge to support our comma faith ministry, we raised last Monday over $75,000 to meet that goal on Plymouth Gives Day.
My friends, I know some of you have had difficult days and there may be more for you and for this country and the world. But somewhere just after the necessary, appropriate, and healthy grieving of the disappointments of our world and our lives, there is a time, there is a choice to faithfully punctuate our stories with a comma, to re-envision new possibilities of manifesting God’s Realm here on earth in your life, in northern Colorado and in Plymouth church, in the world, and then to act into the new.
As our UCC promotions often say, God is Still Speaking. Our call is to be listening and discerning and following the Still Speaking God calling us into a faith where we are placing the life-giving commas of compassion, of courage, and of creativity, where others would place the death dealing periods of complacency and complicity and resignation. We are invited into an adventure of faith where the comma is always opening us to the renewing of our minds, the reconciliation of the alienated in ourselves and others, and a re-visioning of any way of being that is less than Shalom for all Creation.
As Gracie said,
Never place a period where God has placed a comma.
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.
Hebrews 11 and 12, selected verses (scroll down to read)*
The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson
Fort Collins, CO
On August 29, 2010, I stood in this pulpit for the last time as your interim associate minister. And I preached from the same passage you just heard Harmony/Scott read. I was finishing my summer with you and Sharon Benton was returning. I did not think I would stand here again in ministry. I said to you, “It may be that our paths will not cross again in the future….or they may cross again sooner than we think…but if they do it will be a new path…this path of me working alongside you as your interim associate minister is coming to the end…to the T or the fork in the road and we will move into a different path of relationship... “
Who knew that I would be back?! I will confess that on that Sunday, I was beginning to suspect that I would be back as a church member, dating Hal. But not that I would again come to you in an interim situation .... that I would be one of your Acting Associate Ministers and then one of your settled Associate Ministers as I am now. What a blessing! What a path of faith it has been for me in these last nine years, professionally and personally. And don’t worry, I’m not going anywhere else any time soon! Still on this path! I am so blessed that you saw fit to call me to work alongside Hal and Jake – and now Hal and someone else the Spirit is preparing for Plymouth. We do not know where faith will lead us, do we?
Let’s talk a little about the faith we just heard about in our passage from the book of Hebrews. Hebrews is a strange little book...its not really a letter to Hebrew people as the name might imply. Scholars actually call it a sermon....and it was most likely not written by Paul the apostle, but by an anonymous apostle, probably for a congregation of Jewish Christians between the years 60 and 95 CE. Late in the first century. These are second generation Christians who have most likely been under persecution. They are tired and thus the continued exhortation throughout the sermon to keep the faith....the faith in Jesus the Christ who has shown the world the powerful workings of God in his life, death and resurrection.
I love the lyricism of the phrase our passage began with. Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. It reminds me that faith is not believing in 10 impossible things before breakfast each morning. It is not a set of intellectual tenants, progressive though they may be…not a code of ethics….not a creed or a statement to which we give intellectual assent as helpful as those may be. Faith is more of a verb than a noun. It is an action. It is a way of living. It is a “living into” as the poet Rainer Maria Rilke suggests in his in oft-quoted letter to a younger poet,
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”[i]
The Greek word for faith, pistis means trust. Pistis is a heart word, not a head word and holds the implication that actions will be taken based on that trust. We really only know trust in acting on it…do we not? In living it. How can we understand trust…until we act on what we trust? We can look at the chair all we want knowing in our heads that it will hold us up when we sit down…but until we do sit down…we do not really trust the chair…do we? And in sitting down we move from intellectual assent that the chair will hold us to experiential assent of our body and our heart in trusting that the chair does indeed hold us up.
To faith is to trust. To faith is to fully accept the gift of God’s unconditional love. Faith is trusting from the deepest recesses of our hearts that in God we will live into the answers to our questions. Faith is the intimate desire for union with the deepest parts of ourselves and others where the Spirit of God dwells. As a Christian, faith is trusting the vision that the way of Jesus, following Jesus as the pioneer and perfecter of “faithing”, is the way to become who we are made to be in God’s image. Following the way of Jesus is the way through the suffering we all encounter in life and the shame that can accompany that suffering. Jesus for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame. He set the example of faith in trusting the God’s unconditional love even in death.
The writer of Hebrews takes great pains to let us know that this way of faith, the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen, this trust in God’s unconditional love has always been God’s way of working in the world…even before the life of Jesus. The writer’s grand litany of ancestors and their faith is even longer than what you actually heard in our text today. Check out the whole of Hebrews chapter 11. It is indeed a great cloud of witnesses! We are the beneficiaries of their faith, their extraordinary trust in God. It is important to the writer of Hebrews that we know that our ancient ancestors, those before Christ, are beneficiaries of our trust in the ways of Jesus. There is a symbiotic relationship as we are all gathered into God! For we are all made in God’s image.
I love the image of being surrounded by this cloud of witnesses...it give me comfort, particularly as I add to it my own family ancestors in faith, grandparents, great grandparents, parents, beloved believers I have known in the churches I have loved and served, loved ones who have gone before me into the unknown life of what is next for us. People I may have only read about or whose writings I have read, but who have inspired me with their faith. Think for a moment of who those witnesses might be for you.
When we trust the great cloud of faith witnesses that have come before us, when we trust our own “faithing” we discover that we are compelled to action. Setting our sites on the way of Jesus we become more of who we are made to be in God’s image and we live more fully into God’s ways of love and justice in the world. When we realize we are held in God’s love, we are compelled to love our neighbor because we know we are all God’s beloveds. We are connected here and now as well as across time. Nothing separates us. We are compelled – each one of us, not just those of us up here in the funny robes– to step into new paths of ministry and service and the new relationships these bring. We hear God’s call to the ministry of our lives. We are strengthened in faith, in trust, to take actions, large or small which can change the very fabric of the cosmos as we work with God.
My friends, I share all this with you today because I have found faith, trust, at work in my life over and over. Looking back over the last nine years since I last preached on this text standing in this pulpit I am keenly aware of how faith has seen me through particularly when I thought I was standing alone in the dark. I know we often wonder these days if we are standing in the dark as a country. And I know that personally we each face the darkness in some way.
Writer and photographer, Teju Cole, teaches us about “qarrtsiluni” — an Inuit word that means ‘sitting together in the dark.’” He says, “Maybe that moment of contemplation, that moment of quiet sorrow, is the anteroom to what the solution, someday, could be.”[ii] The late civil rights activist and Iliff School of Theology professor, Vincent Harding, also understood standing in the dark. He is remembered as saying that too often as folks who want to help others we think our job is to bring people from the dark into the light. What if our job is to stand with them in the dark as we all eventually live into the light? He practiced this in the programs he developed for youth in tough situations. The Spirit may have revelations for those in the dark that they might not ever experience if we try to drag them into the light on our own power, trying to fix everything.[iii] It’s our loving task to first stand with them and listen with them in the dark, in that moment of contemplation and even sorrow. The God who accompanied Jesus even in the dark of the cross and led him through death to resurrection will also accompany us.
Faith is calling us all to go deeper. Go deeper as we step out in faith in a new program year of study and learning together. Are you called to participate or even teach in our Christian formation classes? Go deeper as we step out in faith as an Immigrant Welcoming congregation. Are you called to volunteer and stand with people who are working toward legal documentation? Who are concerned that family members could be deported? Go deeper as we join the “End Gun Violence” ministry team. Go deeper as we surprise ourselves by saying “yes” instead of “no” when asked to help with church hospitality. Go deeper as we pray for our search committee and it’s process. Go deeper as we pray for the discernment of a candidate who may be called to come among us as a new ministerial leader. Go deeper.....you finish the sentence. How are you being compelled to the action of going deeper in faith?
May we all remember… since we are surrounded by [and not separated from] so great a cloud of witnesses, [we can] lay aside every weight and [all that separates us from the love of God]; [we can] run with perseverance the race that is set before us looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith... Let us stand with one another and with our neighbors in faith, in the dark and in the light, knowing we will be sustained by the grace and love of God. May it be so. Amen.
© 2019 The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson, all rights reserved.
[ii] “The Pause”, a weekly email from The On-Being Project”
[iii] From an On Being podcast. A Conversation with Darnell Moore.
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for,
the conviction of things not seen.
Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval.
By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God,
so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out
for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance;
and he set out, not knowing where he was going.
[By faith Sarah conceived Isaac the son of promise…
By faith Moses’ sister hid him in the bulrushes…]
By faith Moses, when he was grown up,
refused to be called a son of Pharaoh's daughter,
choosing rather to share ill-treatment with the people of God….
By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land…
By faith the walls of Jericho fell
after they had been encircled for seven days.
By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish
with those who were disobedient,
because she had received the spies in peace.
And what more should [we] say?
For time would fail to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson,
of Deborah and Jephthah’s daughter,
of David and Jonathan, of Hannah and Samuel and the prophets--
who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice,
obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions,
quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword,
[birthed children of promise], won strength out of weakness,
became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.
Others suffered mocking and flogging,
and even chains and imprisonment.
They wandered in deserts and mountains,
and in caves and holes in the ground.
Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith,
did not receive all the promises of God,
since God was providing something even more full
so that they would not, separate from us, be made perfect.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by [and not separated from]
so great a cloud of witnesses,
let us also lay aside every weight and the sin
that clings so closely [and that separates us from God],
and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us,
looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith,
who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross,
disregarding its shame,
and has taken his seat
at the right hand of the throne of God.
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. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
June 17, 2018
I’ve been wondering…what is it that has kept people coming to church for the past 2,000 years? What is it that we’ve got that other groups and organizations don’t have? Let’s face it, the ACLU does social justice better than we do. The federal government supplies more housing that we can ever hope to. Laudamus and the Larimer Chorale are more polished than our choir…even though we share some of the same singers. CSU does a better job at young adult education than we do. And even though we love potlucks and Ice Cream Sunday, Austin’s and Walrus Ice Cream have superior offerings. And Snapchat is a lot better at reaching millions of teens with smartphones than we ever will be in youth group. The coffee is better at Starbucks than it is at our coffee hour. And you might hear more articulate people if you were to stay at home and watch CBS Sunday Morning than you’ll encounter here at Plymouth, even in this pulpit.So, maybe we should cash it in while we can.
If we sold our property for $9 million, that would mean that each member of the church would get about $12,500. If you read all of the studies about mainline decline and read the self-flagellating books and articles about how narrow-minded, bigoted, and anti-intellectual we Christians are you might want to cash in your chips and just become spiritual but not religious. Certainly, plenty of people have done just that.
And for our staff, we could be making a lot more money as lawyers, professors, or in the corporate world. And we’d get to have three-day weekends, wouldn’t be on call 24-7, and wouldn’t have to work on Christmas Eve or Easter.
So, what has kept people coming to church for 2,000 years? Is it just our social justice and music programs or coffee hour?
Here at Plymouth we DO act for social justice. And we are one of the most active venues for participative music each week. And we do have outstanding adult theological education. And we do have food free-for-alls that welcome you, whether you contribute or not. And we do instill a profound sense of morals and values in our children and youth. And you might actually gain some insights in hearing promptings from the pulpit or in a coffee hour dialogue. And to my colleagues, you get to do amazingly meaningful and fulfilling work.
But this still doesn’t answer my question: What has kept people coming to church for 2,000 years?
Back when the UCC entered a full-communion agreement with the ELCA Lutherans, a wise and bold Lutheran pastor speaking at the UCC General Synod offered these words of challenge to us: You need to remember that UCC doesn’t stand for United Church of Causes, it stands for United Church of Christ. She knew one of the pitfalls of our denomination: that we sometimes substitute working for social causes for being the body of Christ. To be sure, acting for social justice is an important component of the way many of us live out our tradition, but it is not an end in itself. What does it mean for us, the church, to be the body of Christ in the world? Paul writes, “Now, you (plural) are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” [1 Corinthians 12.27]
About a year and a half ago, I was sitting in a doctor’s office, and I heard the words that many of us dread: “You’ve got cancer.” What do you do with that news? Other than scaring the Dickens out of myself by reading way too much conflicting information on the internet, I’ll tell you what I did: I prayed. You see, there is nothing that the ACLU or the Larimer Chorale or CBS Sunday Morning or Snapchat could do to help me navigate the scary waters of cancer treatment. But, my faith – and by faith I mean a trusting relationship with God – my faith gave me the tools to walk through a very scary time. And unlike most other folks with cancer, I had to make my news very public with all of you, which was not comfortable or easy, but it was the right thing to do. That line in the unison prayer this morning struck me: “We pray not for smooth seas, but for a stout ship, a good compass, and a strong heart.” A solid, trusting relationship with God is a stout ship with a good compass, and it provides us a strong heart.
Every morning, during my prayer time, I started offering this as one of my prayers: “Circle me, God, keep wholeness within and cancer without.” And it is a prayer that I continue to offer for the members of our church who are living with cancer. You may not know I’m praying for you each day, but I am. “Circle us, God, keep wholeness within and cancer without.”
I was out having a beer with one of our members on February 1st this year, when my iPhone rang. I couldn’t understand Jane Anne’s voice through her tears; so my son, Chris, got on the phone and told me the news that strikes fear into the heart of every parent: that one of our sons, Colin, had died. And I raced home across town and held Jane Anne tight. I hope that none of you ever has to go through what we went through this year, but if you do, I hope that your faith in God sustains you. I didn’t know what else to do after we received this news, so I lit a candle and prayed. In the middle of the night, our doorbell rang, and a Fort Collins police officer appeared to make the official notification of Colin’s death. And then there was a discussion with the medical examiner and the funeral director and picking up Colin’s belongings from the coroner’s office. And we decided to be very frank and open with the congregation in telling you that the cause of death was suicide. That level of transparency was not obligatory…and God knows it wasn’t easy or comfortable. But it was the right thing to do. We were trying to embody healthy communication: that even when it’s hard, uncomfortable, jarring, difficult news, it is important to tell it straight, be honest, and be direct. That kind of open communication helps keep the body of Christ, the church, healthy. I can also tell you that the only way Jane Anne and I are standing here this morning is because of our faith in God and because of your faith and prayers pulling us along. In the week after his death, I had a very strong feeling come over me, a feeling that let me know that Colin was at peace. Our prayers together with your prayers and expressions of God’s love created a wave of faithful expression that kept us afloat…and they still keep us afloat!
What has kept people coming back to the church for 2,000 years?
Part of the answer is that when life gets very, very real…when you think the world is crumbling…faith in God will keep you going. And life WILL get real for each of us. We will get a pink slip at work. We will learn that our parents or spouses or (God forbid) children have died. We will hear the doctor utter the words of an unfavorable diagnosis. And eventually each one of us will die.
It may be in those moments when we most clearly rely on the strength of our faith in God, because no matter how intellectually astute or wealthy or young or accomplished or seemingly bulletproof we are…life gets real. And then there is nothing that the ACLU or the Larimer Chorale or CBS Sunday Morning can do to make you see that death is not the final word, that the sun will indeed rise tomorrow, that you are part of something bigger. Unlike the ACLU, Larimer Chorale, or CBS Sunday Morning, we comprise the body of Christ in the world.
That tiny, little mustard seed…that’s what the kingdom of God is like. Maybe the church is like that mustard seed, too. It may look tiny compared to other seeds, but when it takes root and gets going, it can be explosive. And it’s exciting to be a part of that…to dream of what God is calling us to become! And you know that Jesus also said that if your faith is the size of just a little mustard seed that your faith has the power to move mountains.
If you are like me, sometimes you may feel that your faith – your trust in God and Christ – is really tiny…that it may not be adequate or up to the job when life gets real. Faith is like a muscle in that it needs fuel and exercise in order to grow; it needs to be nurtured and used so that it will grow.
For those of us who are (or are trying to be) physically fit, how much time do you spend training each week? 3 hours? 5 hours? 7 hours? And for those of us who are trying to be spiritually fit, how much time do you spend exercising your faith? I’m doing a lot of swimming right now, and it occurred to me that spending 15 minutes praying each morning doesn’t compare favorably with the time I spend swimming. And if you need help with a spiritual practice or workout, please come and see me…I have ideas!
But you don’t need to be a spiritual Ironman. No, you just need faith like a mustard seed and to water it, give it air and light and soil. Maybe that’s part of why people keep coming back to church after 2,000 years: to nurture that wild, explosive seed.
So, let me ask you a personal question: Why are you here today, and what keeps you coming back?
In these uncertain times in our nation, it is easy to put our heads in our hands and admit defeat. Or to play small…or to opt out of controversy…or not to claim our inheritance as followers of Jesus and proclaimers of the kingdom. Our faith is not bound by time or space or even the span of a human life. It is eternal. And so our relationship with God supersedes our politics, our nationality, our race, our gender, our body. All these aspects of our personhood will cease when we die, but our faith will not.
The empire in Jesus’ day and in our own can take away our wealth, our livelihood, our rights, our land, our freedom, even our life. But one thing they can never take away is our faith – our relationship with God.
A wise Congregational/Unitarian minister, Ralph Waldo Emerson, once offered these words, and I want you to hold onto them, because life will get real for you. And you will need the force of your faith to see you through: “The task ahead of us is never as great as the power behind us.”
May it be so.
©2018 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.