The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Cong’l UCC
19 March 2023
I love that Jesus overturns the “blame the victim” mentality by saying that this man’s blindness is not fault of his own or his parents’; instead, his real thrust is giving new sight to the blind. There is certainly a literal dimension that can be derived from the story: that Jesus spat into the dirt, rubbed mud in the blind man’s eyes, and sent him to wash in the pool of Siloam, restoring his vision. There are more healing stories about Jesus than anyone else in Jewish tradition. And if we limit our interpretation of the story to that one view, it is applicable only to that one person, 2,000 years ago, not to us.
Speaking metaphorically, we all have blind spots, don’t we? There are things we’d rather not know about – that we’d rather not see – perhaps because we are already overloaded with suffering in the world and even in our own lives. I know that lots of us are overwhelmed.
But we do an amazing job in this congregation of seeing and doing. And we do pretty well as a denomination also, especially through our One Great Hour of Sharing offering. Here is the thing about One Great Hour of Sharing: We didn’t necessarily SEE where our dollars were going when we gave last year at this time, but we had a vision for what it might do. (Are you able to visualize that distinction?) In retrospect, one of the things you made possible was an immediate UCC response to the relief from the war in Ukraine. But at the beginning of 2022, we had no idea that war would come to Ukraine bringing devastation and a huge refugee crisis. Even though none of us saw that situation in advance, your giving to One Great Hour of Sharing made refugee relief possible from the very onset of the crisis.
One of the shortcomings of focusing just on local outreach that we can see is that it limits our scope of vision to only those in our midst. There are great needs in other parts of the country and other parts of the world that you and I may never see ourselves, but they are situations where our global partners need our help. I’m not saying that doing local outreach work is unimportant. We know it is important because we can see it. But it is also vital that we develop vision that focuses more broadly on the needs of God’s world.
Sometimes our blindness is closer to home. We are unable to see what is most important. We take it for granted until it is gone, or almost gone – whether it is our health, our relationships, or just being alive. We need to open our eyes to the world around us, to the people around us, to ourselves, and to the holy.
There are things we cannot see with our eyes, but that we know to be true. Physicists don’t actually see subatomic particles, but they see evidence for their existence. And how many of us doubt the existence of quarks and neutrinos, just because nobody has ever laid eyes on them?
I listened to a talk by Amy Jill Levine, a respected New Testament scholar, and she claimed that there are real, invisible things in our lives that no one should try to negate or to take away. She spoke about faith. No one ever sees faith, and it isn’t even a logical concept. One can see the impact and result of lives lived faithfully. No one ever sees love, which also isn’t a logical concept. Yet we see the effects of love every day. Just because we cannot see things with our eyes does mean they are not real.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote in The Little Prince: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly.” If our blindness is in our hearts, rather than our eyes, we can ask God to apply some mud, and wash our hearts, and then we’ll be able to see. The restoration of sight to people like us, whose hearts are unable to see, is a tall order.
When Jesus is quoted in John’s gospel, saying, “I am the light of the world,” the gospel writer proclaims that it is Jesus who gives us a vision of what is real, because he illuminates reality for us: the things we can see with our hearts, rather than just with our eyes.
What is it that keeps you from “seeing rightly?” What is impairing your sight? I was reading a Lenten devotional essay this week and it struck me that what keeps many of us from seeing clearly is fear. The author claims that “frightened people will never turn the world right-side up, because they use too much energy on protection of self. It is the vocation of the baptized…to help make the world whole: The unafraid are open to the neighbor, while the frightened are defending themselves from the neighbor.
The unafraid are generous in the community, while the frightened, in their anxiety, must keep and store and accumulate, to make themselves feel safe.
The unafraid commit acts of compassion and mercy, while the frightened do not notice those in need.
The unafraid are committed to justice for the weak and the poor, while the frightened seem them only as threats.
The unafraid pray in the morning, care through the day, and rejoice at night in thanks and praise, while the frightened are endlessly restless and dissatisfied.” Is fear holding you back from seeing with the eyes of your heart?
John Newton’s blind spot was the self-deception that the slave trade was morally acceptable, but after having his viewpoint transformed, he wrote “Amazing Grace” to describe his experience. When have you been blind, but now you see?
This occurs not just among individuals, but in institutions, as well. The church has certainly has had its share of blind spots over the millennia, whether in forbidding the ordination of women, using scripture to justify slavery, demonizing LGBTQ folks, or developing Christian nationalism in Nazi Germany and in our own nation.
On a more local level, I wonder what our blind spots at Plymouth have been, and are today. I’m sure if we tried, we could come up with quite a laundry list! Where have we not had the vision to do what needs to be done? Sometimes our lack of vision involves traveling along the safe route, when taking some risks would be a more faithful response.
If we are bathed in the light of the Christ, we are called to open the eyes of our hearts and see the reality we cannot necessarily see with our eyes. May it be so. Amen.
 Walter Brueggemann, A Way Other than Our Own: Devotions for Lent. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017) p.60-61.
“We Are Plymouth!”
October 2, 2022
Plymouth Congregational Church
Fort Collins, CO
We are Plymouth! Today we begin our stewardship campaign. Most of you know exactly what that means. A few of us ask the rest of us to give the time and the resources it takes to run this place for the next year. Like most congregations, we set aside a time each year to talk about Stewardship. It begins today and goes on for the next few weeks. Each of your ministers and some of your lay leaders will be sharing their faith and their understanding of this important topic.
Now, some folks think that means talking about money and that makes some people uncomfortable — I know that. I understand that. It made me uncomfortable in the past, or I said it did, even though Jesus talked about money in the same breath and with the same intensity that he talked about love and right relationships and being reborn. In fact, unlike most of us, who have this human tendency to be hypocritical and keep our lives in hermetically sealed compartments, with money here, and relationship here, and politics over there, hoping that the neighbors won’t take notice of our inconsistent behavior, Jesus didn’t seem to be able to do that.
One of the reasons I believe that Jesus was somehow divine was that he was no hypocrite and that for me, being saved or finding salvation has a great deal to do with becoming less of a hypocrite in my own life. I talk a much better game than the one I am able to play most of the time, but then Jesus already knows that. Jesus said it plain: "Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Luke 12:34).
I remember an encounter many years ago with an individual who had nothing good to say about the church and church people. He touched most of the normal complaints including reminding me that all ‘they did was talk about money.” I listened and kept on listening, remembering the wisdom of one of my mentors who tried to teach me that you rarely learn much from those with whom you agree.
Sadly, most of what he had to say, was spot on, even though most of his negative attitudes came from experiences that I never had. After a long time of listening to his complaints, he ended his excuse making with one final jab. He said to me, “I just can’t stand going to church because it’s so full of hypocrites.”
At that point I could take it no longer and I began to laugh and that stopped him for a minute, and I said to him, “But isn’t that the point? That’s who we are. That’s what church is, people in recovery.” And then I tried to explain that church is people seeking to catch a glimpse of what it means to love and to care and to be in mission. We are Plymouth, not perfect, not without flaws or even some contradictions, but people on a journey toward the love of Jesus in community with one another. We are Plymouth!
Every year at this time, a few of us take on the job of asking, a job that most people want no part of, but a few of us know it has to be done and so a few of us got together and choose a theme and wrote a few good letters and designed a brochure and a pledge card to invite the rest of us to do what most of us know needs to be done. We are Plymouth.
That letter and that brochure and that pledge card will arrive at your house later this week. We are Plymouth!
Let me invite those of you who receive that packet to take a good look and a long read. A few of us worked hard for the last month or so and since we are Plymouth, I am confident that most of us will respond and most of us will understand what we need to do. Since we are Plymouth, we will do our best to help by making a gift that is meaningful to us, that includes our time and our resources and that reflects a commitment to show up and help out, by including with our pledge, our positive energy and our prayers.
We are Plymouth and because we are Plymouth, we remember that Jesus said once that the only thing we would ever really have in this life is what we were willing to give away. That he said what we have belongs to God. That he said that the hairs on our heads are numbered—well, maybe he didn’t mean that literally for some of us, but that we are all one and mystically united with a divine energy that is beyond all we know or understand, but within the essence of all that is, and that essence is about living by giving. And that includes our time and our resources and our spiritual energy and those beautiful things that are at the very center of our essential selves. We are Plymouth.
We are Plymouth and so we know that how we share will help this place grow and nurture the next generation and friends we have not met yet and new members and youth and children and ministers and leaders and mission in the community and around the world that will help keep this place strong and vital for a new generation.
Now, that is the first part of what I want to say this morning and now I am going veer off in another direction and think out loud in your presence about what I believe it means to say that we are Plymouth.
Budgets and finances are a necessary part of a church’s life. After all, we are an organization. But what makes a church a church, what makes a community, a community of Christ? Let me suggest a few things and invite you to think of a few more.
What is a church? Is it one hour a week when we think religious thoughts? Is it a chance to spend some quiet time or some social time? Is it the building where we meet? Is it an old program hardwired into our psyches as some sort of habit neither good nor bad but a routine like tooth brushing or flossing? I did it as a kid, so I guess I better keep on doing it?
Here's what I think. The essence of Church is living out the call of Jesus. We are people answering a call sometimes soft, sometimes distant, some days mystical and not always understood, but real enough to make us want to get together to live together for the sake of others and in the process discover some truth about our own lives. It is a quest for deeper meaning and a truth that offers bread for this scary journey.
It's not about guilt, although it might start there. It’s not about duty, because duty wears out over time, its not about what mom wanted me to do or what grandpa always did, although there’s nothing wrong with honoring those people who helped make us who we are. In my mind it comes down to a conscious decision about who I want to be and how I intend to act. And given all that is happening in this world and in this nation politically and I’m going to share my thoughts about that in a couple of weeks, given all that, acting together in love and in service as the followers of Jesus has never been more important. It’s about standing up for transformative justice and reproductive freedom. It’s about finding a way together to resist racism and homophobia and the sort of corrosive politics of hate that threatens to destroy this nation.
Many years ago, I heard someone ask a question that has been at the center of my heart ever since. She said: “If you were accused of being a follower of Jesus, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” Saying that “We Are Plymouth” and acting as if we believe that, proves the point.
Look at today. Dozens of us are doing a Crop Walk this afternoon so that thousands around the world will have food and a new opportunity for the dignity that all of God’s children need. We are part of a world family. We are Plymouth!
Today we received a special offering for our United Church of Christ. Neighbors in Need is an effort by our faith family to end injustice in this world. This year the offering is dedicated to advocacy for fair wages and decent working conditions for all of God’s children. We take this offering because we are Plymouth.
Today we break the bread of communion and share the cup. That is not an isolated event. Today we call World Communion Sunday, because what we are doing here is not just about us, it is about our connection and our participation and our invitation to see ourselves as members of one another and of a world household of faith that seeks to remember the Jesus who called us to love one another and this good earth. We are Plymouth!
There is one story about Jesus that occurs in all four gospels. In fact, it appears six times in total. I have often thought that the people who followed Jesus first must have realized how important these stories were. Do you know which stories I’m talking about? I took one of them as my text for today. They are all a bit different, but they all have one thing in common. They are miracles of multiplication. They tell a single story and the story they tell is our story.
Where Jesus is, there is always enough. Where the Holy Spirit is active, ordinary things get multiplied in miraculous ways. The hungry are fed. The lonely are welcomed. The thirsty find refreshment. The suffering find support and justice. That is our story. That is our call, because we are Plymouth! Thanks be to God! Amen.
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.
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.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
Most of the world right now is finding itself in a strange and unexpected place. There are lots of unknowns, lots of fears, lots of needs for healing of our spirits, our minds … and for some of us, our bodies.
Healing is a main thrust of this story of Jesus healing blind man at the pool of Siloam. But the story begins with a question: “Who sinned? This man or his parents? For he was born blind.” The disciples try to blame the victim with that question, and Jesus turns the blame-game around. In the past, I have heard people say of others suffering from cancer or heart disease, “Well, did they smoke?” or “They didn’t have a very good diet,” and regardless of what a person may have done or neglected, that’s an unhelpful kind of remark. I even had a former parishioner in Maine who held the belief that we all do something to manifest the illnesses we have; try telling that to the parents of a three-year-old with leukemia. So, as we hear of more people who have contracted the virus, please don’t play the blame-game and guess whether they washed their hands thoroughly enough or whether they didn’t keep six feet away. Instead, let’s do what Jesus did and respond with compassion and with healing.
I know that we wonder about the literalness of miracles, like Jesus curing the blind man, and see if this helps:
Anthony de Mello, a Jesuit from India, told this story about a seeker and a spiritual master’s disciple: “A man traversed land and sea to check for himself the Master’s extraordinary fame. ‘What miracles has your Master worked?’ he said to a disciple. ‘Well, said the disciple, there are miracles … and then there are miracles. In your land it is regarded as a miracle if God does someone’s will. In our country it is regarded as a miracle if someone does the will of God.’” [Anthony de Mello, One Minute Wisdom, p. 4.]
Are you expecting the kind of miracle that happens if God does your will…or would it be miraculous if we did God’s will?
Where are the miracles in our midst? Where do we see ourselves and others doing God’s will? Would it be a miracle if you saw someone in Safeway offering the last package of toilet paper on the shelf to another shopper, even though it meant going without themselves? Would it be a miracle if we witnessed an outpouring of generosity to keep essential nonprofit organizations funded fully? Would it be a miracle if you heard that Plymouth is continuing to pay its childcare staff, even though we have no in-person work for them to do?
So, there is a literal sense in which this story is about Jesus restoring the sight of the man born blind. And I’ll bet that the newly sighted man never again saw things in quite the same way. I wonder if he saw everything in a new light. Imagine yourself as that man, trying to live without the aid of vision and then having your eyes opened because of your faith in Jesus. The blue sky and the orange sunset stand out in their beauty, but then again, you also see the suffering of those around you.
In the Buddhist tradition, the story of Siddhartha Gautama’s enlightenment goes like this: the young man who would become the Buddha was a wealthy aristocrat, whose father did not want him to see the suffering of humankind, so he kept him within the palace walls, sheltered from witnessing the ravages of human existence: disease, poverty, death. One day, the young man escaped the confines of the palace and saw the suffering of human existence, which spurred him on to seek enlightenment. Siddhartha’s eyes were opened to the world around him. He saw the world in a new light.
Have you ever had that kind of experience? I remember traveling in West Africa before Cameron and Chris were born, being approached by legless beggars who rolled up to us on plywood platforms with casters on the bottom. It was a real eye-opener. But, the other thing that opened my eyes on that trip were the experiences of seeing tight extended families as the center of life and also seeing dozens of children share with their friends the pieces of candy that we shared with them. Would American kids do that? It was an aha! moment that I had not expected to see.
Sometimes, we’re unwilling or unable to see things because they are unpleasant and we’d rather not see them. At other times, we don’t see things because we haven’t had the opportunity to look at them carefully and closely. And sometimes we are not given a choice.
Have you ever had that happen? Has there been something that you’ve had to re-examine in your life, based on a new vision? Something that’s caused you to respond by saying, “Oh…now I see!”
You probably know the story of John Newton, the Anglican curate who wrote “Amazing Grace.” Newton had been a naval deserter, slave trader, a self-described “wretch,” and who had a phenomenal transformation in his life, becoming one of the great voices in Britain for the abolition of the slave trade. You know his words: “I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see.”
So, while I don’t doubt that Jesus had the ability to perform healings that we typify as miraculous, I think there is an amazing metaphorical dimension, a depth to this story, that we are apt to miss, unless we look more closely.
The trust of the blind man in Jesus — the trust that we have in Jesus — can give us is a new vision: the ability to see the divine, ourselves, and God’s world in a new light.
“Taste and see that God is good,” sings the Psalmist, “Taste and SEE…”
Do you see that God is good? If not, look around you! Look at the miracle of life within yourself! The fact that you are sitting here and that the presence of the holy is within you – within each of us – is nothing short of miraculous. In the midst of this pandemic, look around and see those who are acting with compassion and courage and commitment to serve others. SEE that God is good!
How have your eyes been opened, and how do you respond? How is Christ’s compassion envisioned through you? Is it because you know that many people in Ft. Collins live on the economic margin, so you volunteer with our Homelessness Prevention Initiative? Is it because you know that exclusion of LGBTQ folks is a real injustice, so you joined an Open and Affirming Church? Is it because you helped an elderly neighbor with errands or getting their computer hooked up last week, because you know they need to stay connected during this strange time?
I wonder if you have encountered any of your own blind spots in these past few weeks. I’m not necessarily talking about finding fault with yourself, but perhaps finding delight in something that you hadn’t allowed yourself to experience for a while. Maybe you haven’t baked homemade bread for years, and you have seen the joy of bread-baking in a new light. Others of you might be finding solace in meditation or another spiritual practice that you haven’t found the time for until this week, and you’re seeing your own sense of spirituality and God’s presence in a new light.
For me, one of the flashes of new light has been the visceral realization that we are all one people, whether we are princes or homeless, whether we are Italian or Mozambican, whether we are gay or straight or bi or trans, male or female or nonbinary…we are all inextricably bound together by the strange bond of being susceptible to Covid-19. Wouldn’t it be a miracle if this virus helped us see that we are all in this together with one another?
My prayer for God’s world is that we learn to see each other as fellow pilgrims on this amazing planet, that we catch a glimpse of our unity in the midst of tragedy, and that we act with compassion with one another.
Many of you know the wonderful book, The Little Prince, by Antoine de St.-Exupéry, written while he was pilot during World War II. The little prince shares with us this secret: that “it is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
What might you see this coming week, when you open your heart to others, to your community, to your family, to yourself, and to God? It could result in a miracle!
May it be so! Amen.
© 2020 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact Hal 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.
On Thanksgiving Day, Jake preaches on John 6:25-35.
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph ("just Jake"), Associate Minister, came to Plymouth in 2014 having served in the national setting of the UCC on the board of Justice & Witness Ministries, the Coalition for LGBT Concerns, and the Chairperson of the Council for Youth and Young Adult Ministries (CYYAM). Jake has a passion for ecumenical work and has worked in a wide variety of churches and traditions. Read more about him on our staff page.
Director of Christian Formation, The Rev. Mandy Hall, preaches on John 7:37-39 on Pentecost Sunday.
Mandy began her ministry at Plymouth in August of 2014. She is originally from Michigan where she followed her call to ministry to become a Deacon in the United Methodist Church. Her passion is helping young people grow in faith in creative and meaningful ways. Read more.