Plymouth Congregational, UCC
Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
Our scripture today comes from the Gospel of John…it is part of Jesus’ long conversation and prayer with his disciples at the Last Supper. words of instruction and love which foreshadow his death. We hear the historical Jesus speaking to his disciples amid the impending crisis of his arrest. We hear Jesus speaking through the gospel writer of John to a late first century Jewish Christian community that was besieged with persecution from other Jews as well as the Roman empire. And we hear the Spirit of God speaking through Jesus, through the gospel writer, to us on this May morning, to our 21st century Body of Christ, Plymouth UCC. Let us listen through the filter of our strengths and struggles, our gifts and challenges, our fears, our hopes and dreams for the opportunities of God’s work through us.
As God, our loving Father and Mother, has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept God’s commandments and abide in God’s love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from God. You did not choose me, but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that God will give you whatever you ask in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.
For the Word of God in scripture; for the Word of God among us, for the Word of God within us …. Thanks be to God.
Do you feel chosen by Jesus to be God’s friend? To abide in God’s love and joy in such complete fullness that it bears the fruit of transformation in your life and in the lives of those around you? This is not a life just for saints and holy hermits. This is the life that God has for all of us to if we keep commandments of Jesus to love one another. Jesus tells us in our scripture, when we love one another, heeding all Jesus taught us about love, we are his friends and thus, friends of God. This love is reflexive, reciprocal, regenerative. As friends of the loving God, we are empowered to follow Jesus’ commands to choose love.
After the death of my mom in 2014, I was visiting my dad and had time to talk with him about death and life after death and heaven. Many of you know he was an ordained pastor and preacher, a theology professor. As we sat in the local coffee shop in his little town in Missouri, he confessed to me, “I do not know about heaven. But what I hope is that after death I will learn to love as God loves.” Perhaps this is the aspiration that Jesus has for us, as he did for his first century disciples and friends. To love as God loves. What might that look like? I think that is the invitation here.
It begins with knowing we are “chosen.” I struggle with that. I’m just an ordinary person, one among SO many, why would God notice me? Yet Jesus tells us we are each chosen to be friends. The idea is bigger than my brain can conceive. I can only tell you that I had an experience this week taught me about “being chosen.” I sat down to practice, emphasis on that word for I am a true beginner, to practice centering prayer. I got settled and centered. Then our dog, Bridey, stuck her nose in my lap, right in my open hands. I tried to gently push her away and stay centered. She did it again with her big purple toy bone. Again I tried to disengage… she persisted and finally draped herself across my lap putting her face in mine with “kisses.” I think God is like this… choosing us time and again… in our face at unexpected times with love…that we might first see as distraction. It might even be in the middle of some spiritual practice that you think you should “do” to get close to God. God is always with us, sometimes distracting and disrupting like a loving, playful dog – or cat – calling you to love.
Jesus says that we become friends by keeping the commands to love. In the midst of this we know we are chosen. It’s a bit circuitous. Looking concretely to examples of friendship in my life…the most life-giving friends, those relatively few people that are my closest, most tried and true friends, the one who have been with me through the nitty gritty of life and have loved me through it all … I have found in true friendship I seek to take on the best characteristics of my friends. If we take on the best characteristics of our true friends in this life, then as friends of God through Jesus, might we take on the characteristics of the loving God who has chosen us? My dad longed to love as God loves, which is a huge mystery that we will never finish exploring in this life or the next. I wonder if after 80+ years of practicing friendship with God through following Jesus he was closer than he thought.
I am reminded of another surprising experience of being chosen to love as God loves. In the spring of 2009 I was chosen by the pastor emeritus of the church I served in Denver to be part of the Rocky Mountain Conference Global Missions Team mission trip to Venezuela. Very early on a frosty Sunday morning in April, I met the other nine members mission trip team at DIA to set off for Miracaibo, VZ to partner in mission with our Venezuelan denominational partners, the United Evangelical Pentecostal Church of Venezeula or in the Spanish acronym, the UEPV. After being prayed over and anointed with oil by this same elder stateman pastor right at the United ticket counter, we took off. During our layover in Miami we walked from our gate to the International Concourse through a large airport art display. In huge glass cases there were six-to-seven-foot-high letters made of brilliantly colored flowers, like something off a New Year’s Day Rose Bowl parade float. They spelled out, “All You Need is Love”… Prophetic words.
Late that night we were met at the Maracaibo airport by our Venezuelan partners, included their bishop Gamaliel Lugos. It was a swarm of joy as people rushed to carry our bags and help us into cars. Over the course of the next ten days people of the UEPV, never failed to amaze me with their deep and enthusiastic engagement with life lived in and through the love of God. They lived large in a country riddled with poverty and injustice. Their love of Christ was inseparable from their political commitment to building a new world of justice in their country. They lived out Jesus’ preferential option for the poor and they were raising up women as leaders, working for women’s rights. They seemed to abide in God’s love to such an extent that joy was their MO, their modus operandi, each moment of their lives. As friends of God, they literally lived by the motto, “we will struggle, but we will not die.”
The bulk of our time was spent in the small town of Ospino in the foothills of the Andes. We stayed in a guest house, but our real home was a few blocks away in the small house of Gladys and Omar Gonzales, who hosted each of our meals. They gathered teams of people to prepare meals for our group of 10 or so as well as 6-8 Venezuelans who came from several areas in VZ to help with the week’s designated work project and to worship with us in the evening. They fed us using fresh fruit and vegetables from the Gonzales’ open air market next door, grilling arrepahas on their George Foreman grill, roasting meat in their backyard. Omar and Gladys became for us un familia, family. They laid down their lives for us. You do not have to die for to lay down your life for a friend. You do have to open your heart so wide that life might not always be convenient for you as you offer hospitality and love to others, but it will be joyful!
Two things I experienced in VZ through the ministry of the UEPV opened my eyes and heart to an expanded vision of being chosen as a friend by God’s love. The first was the circumstances of our work project on the finca, the farm owned by the denomination in Ospina. It was not a working farm but more of a community center for ministry. It had two or three buildings surrounded by a large amount of land…that was growing increasingly smaller because of squatters, people so poor that they grabbed any small piece of land they could to build shacks and grow a few vegetables. The shacks would literally spring up overnight. The UEPV could have legally prosecuted these people who stole the land from the finca. But they decided it was part of their ministry of Christ’s love to let the squatters have the land, to engage them as neighbors and invite them into their God’s community. A sacrificial decision, laying down their lives for friends. Ironically, our work project was to help build a wall around the remaining land so that the UEPV could continue their work of community ministry. That was the stated project and progress was made, however, the real work was made manifest in the smiles, laughter, …the halting sentences of banter and praise for a new post hole just dug made across the language barriers. Often there were songs echoing across the field strewn with mangoes falling off the trees and the sound children playing an impromptu baseball game with the mangoes too green to eat.
The second experience was the nightly worship at Iglesia Pentecostal de Los Olivos, the local UEPV church. This church had been taken out of the denomination by a fundamentalist pastor. He was now gone and the church, much to the relief of most of its members, was returning to the denomination. Our presence was the catalyst to invite UEPV folks from around VZ to join in the celebration of reunion and to commission new pastors for the church. Pastors brought their people from little churches in surrounding towns to welcome Los Olivos back to the UEPV vision of working for the poor and women’s rights, for working ecumenically with other denominations, and for creating indigenous Venezuelan worship using their songs and liturgies. The love in the very lively worship was palpable and we were embraced by it. On the last night they actually commissioned our beloved hosts, Gladys and Omar as the new lay pastors.
Each night Bishop Lugos spoke, reminding us that God is not only with us, God is in us, abiding in us, just as we abide in God. At the end of the service he would ask us to pass the peace, saying, ”I Love YOU.” It was intimidating at first. I didn’t really know these people or even know all the people on the mission team well. I didn’t speak Spanish. Yet I had to plunge in saying in English, I love you, I love you, … in Spanish, te quiero, te quiero. And it wasn’t fake or mushy or overly sentimental or even awkward. I had for a brief time been in the nitty gritty of life, with these folks, meals shared, walls built, prayers prayed, abiding in love across the barriers of language and culture in God’s love. It was true and real. If we were all together in our Plymouth sanctuary I would invite us break out of our white, Protestant, intellectual selves and try this practice. I think you would find God’s love in your face as viscerally as the dog kisses that interrupted my prayer time.
My friends, I tell you this longish story today to invite you to take the risk of knowing you, too, are chosen by God. Reach out. Accept the invitation. It will take you to some strange and wonderful and hard places. And it will be worth it. What is calling to you through the ministries of Plymouth that will empower and nurture your friendship with God? Jesus says to us, “I have chosen you in God’s love to be friends of God. Keep my commands to love and you will discover, even in this life, in your heart of hearts what it can means to love as God loves.” Amen.
©The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, 2021 and beyond. May be reprinted with permission only.
Associate Minister Jane Anne Ferguson is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. Learn more about Jane Anne here.
Click to view or download the PDF of this sermon.
Bobbi Wells Hargleroad is a member of Plymouth UCC.
Poem Response to Sermon
by Anne Thompson
Wiped feet with her hair --
Should not this be used to feed
the poor among us?
Learn the art of true living --
We are called to share,
broken open for giving
in this house of love.
Washing dirty feet --
blessings in humility --
What do these words mean?
"The poor are always with us."
Time for Jubilee!
What's the sound of love?
Take clay tablets out and drop
them into the dust.
founding visions fall apart.
What is Jubilee?
Equal pay for work
for women, especially
black, Latina, poor.
Time for equity,
for cleansing dirt from our hands.
Time for Jubilee.
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
Immigrant Rights Sunday: May 6, 2018 (Lectionary)
Will you pray with me? May the humble words of my mouth, the meditations of our collective hearts, and the call to justice we all feel be good and pleasing to you, O God, our freedom-maker and liberator. Amen
Before I really preach this morning on one of the most pressing, alarming, and hurtful subjects of our era, that of Immigrant Rights and Justice, I want to first reflect briefly on the delicate art of being an ally. It takes a lot of intentional work to be in solidarity with a community of the oppressed, from a position of privilege, without speaking over or for that community. The risk is to overshadow those whose voices are already marginalized.
As a parallel to illuminate what I mean by the art of being an “ally,” let me offer an example of a time a place when privilege wasn’t checked.
One day back in seminary, the school I attended decided to have “dialogues” on the issue of LGBTQ rights in the church. Sounds straight forward enough on the surface, right? They brought in panelists from what they termed as “fair and balanced” on both “sides” of the “issue.” [I always love being an issue.] The person they brought in to speak on behalf of the LGBTQ community, however, wasn’t an LGBTQ community member himself, but rather a well-meaning retired United Methodist Bishop who had a strange warming of the heart after his retirement towards his disenfranchised gay church members. He spoke so beautifully from the heart (not to take that away from him) and maybe, I must admit, related better as an advocate to the mostly straight, conservative audience than one of us out people like me might have been able to do; but something did not feel right. You know that feeling that something isn’t right in your gut? It is the feeling you get when someone does not name that they are simply an ally, a co-traveler who, while speaking, doesn’t have the first-person experience of the oppressed community. I never forgot that feeling and promised myself to never do the same to others in oppressed communities. It was a hard lesson on social justice advocacy to always stop and check privilege. He forgot to check his privilege at the door.
So today, I want to start by checking my own privilege. While I am the son of an immigrant from Canada (certainly not a difficult story… although we struggle to find good Maple Syrup in this country), the great-grandson of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe (a distant story), and I married a beautiful man with his own harrowing immigration story to tell from Venezuela, my efforts to speak on this issue, as passionate as I am, are that of ally and solidarity force. Even Gerhard’s story isn’t mind to tell. It is his alone.
I know I am preaching to the choir today, so if you remember nothing else from this sermon remember to be careful as an ally not to silence or overshadow. As the church working on this issue, that is one of the most important reminders we all need as advocates. We are there to support the community, but not to take over the justice movement. The UCC is particularly guilty of this.
The most powerful stories don’t come from us allies (even if we are necessary for the struggle), but from those whose immigration stories are their own. It is only the immigrants themselves who can share the experience the horrors of injustice, the palpable and real impacts of racism and cultural supremacy wrapped in the light veneer of “immigration policy,” and the experiences of indignity, suspicion, fear, micro-aggressions, and overt racism that continue even after citizenship ceremonies are well in the rearview mirror.
Having said that, let me see if by relying on Scripture today, I might do a little more than simply preach to you as a progressive choir.
Anyone remember CliffsNotes? They were these little pamphlets that summarized books for those students that… well didn’t want to do all of the reading. Do CliffsNotes still exist? I remember being the student who would get so upset when others would use CliffsNotes instead of reading the whole book. I was sort of the teachers’ pet. So, given my dislike of CliffsNotes, what I am doing to say today might surprise you! Our Scripture except for today is basically Jesus’ CliffsNotes (JesusNotes) to the entire Bible and Christian faith! Yes, today, we just read a CliffsNotes summary of the point of all of this religion business! Let’s hear it again:
“As the Father [The Creator] has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. I do not call you servants[a] any longer, because the servant[b] does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from [the Creator]. “This is my commandment [note the singular rather than plural tense], that you love one another as I have loved you. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”
What is the main message here if this is Jesus’ shortcut to Christian faith and living? Yes, love each other already, people, and don’t treat anyone as a servant. Amen?
Now, I am not the only one who has seen this Scripture and seen God’s CliffsNotes in it for the Bible. Love each other already, people, and don’t treat anyone as a servant. A whole movement of Black, LGBT/Queer, and Latinx Liberation theologians have been saying this is the point of it all for decades. The arc of the universe bends towards love, towards freedom/ liberation, and towards justice for the oppressed: the migrant, the immigrant, the poor.
Between all of the complexities and contradictions of the Bible (and there are countless of them), if we really look at the driving force of Scripture—it always comes back to the least of these, the forgotten, the excluded. God has a preference for the poor and the oppressed. This is an undeniable common thread through all of Scripture. Our religion is a religion of and for the oppressed, the migrant, the immigrant, the depressed, and the lonely. Our job is to align and support.
Last Saturday, Professor James H. Cone of Union Seminary in New York City died. He was part of this movement of liberation theologians who see religion and scripture as a vehicle primarily for an arc of liberation, hope for the oppressed, and God’s preferential treatment for the poor and those in most need of love. He was the guiling light in North America for this movement for decades. Dr. Cone will be very missed in the world of ministers and theological thinkers.
I want you to hear some of Cone's words on the matter today on Immigrant Justice Sunday:
“God's reality is not bound by one manifestation of the divine in Jesus but can be found wherever people are being empowered to fight for freedom. Life-giving power for the poor and the oppressed is the primary criterion that we must use to judge the adequacy of our theology, not abstract concepts.”
― James H. Cone, Black Theology and Black Power
“And yet the Christian gospel is more than a transcendent reality, more than “going to heaven when I die, to shout salvation as I fly.” It is also an immanent reality—a powerful liberating presence among the poor right now in their midst, “building them up where they are torn down and propping them up on every leaning side.” The gospel is found wherever poor people struggle for justice, fighting for their right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
― James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree
“The scandal is that the gospel means liberation, that this liberation comes to the poor, and that it gives them the strength and the courage to break the conditions of servitude.”
― James H. Cone, God of the Oppressed
That last quote in particular should give us pause today, “The scandal is that the gospel means liberation…and it gives the poor strength to break the conditions of servitude.” I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from [the Creator].
We have all probably heard a lot of talk these past years about the doctrine of America First. It is a statement about our understanding of God and what God promises and to whom. “America First” is a theological/religious statement about how we understand the nature of God’s promises and ourselves. It is a false prosperity theology and a wicked and even evil doctrine of servitude. It does not see or understand the world, and our culturally, artistically, economically, linguistically, musically, and religiously beautiful neighbors/equals in Central and South America, in particular, as friends. It is not a theology of friends but one of servitude. But I have called you friends… I am giving you these commands, so you may love one another.
If in our passage today, the embodiment of God, Emmanuel, God-with-Us can say that we are friends… with the creative energy that sparked existence, that the love of God is for all, that common life shared is the goal (the CliffsNotes of God), then certainly we should do the same with our policies. A public policy of friendship.
With all of our wealth and privilege, the question ought to be: What more can we do to support, ally with, lift-up, check our privilege, inspire, collaborate with our neighbors?
I married a man from Venezuela—a country I have never been to and really cannot visit with him because of the violence, food shortages, and dangers. I know the struggles his family faces there, and I know the feeling of helplessness we have to do anything about it. I also know that they are proud, brilliant, educated, beautiful people with deep faith, family roots, and yet still hope. Even if we don’t see them as friends, they still see us as their neighbor.
I cannot take “America First” rhetoric seriously as a Christian. God says that all of God’s people come first—so what are we waiting for?
Why is friendship so hard? Why is selfishness so easy? Why is scarcity winning over faith? Why aren’t we doing much about it?
We are in deep theological waters, friends. With immigration policy being used as a tool of racism. With the church, most of it in America, rolling over and playing dead, yesterday almost 60,000-90,000 hard working Hondurans and Central Americans lost their protected status for no reason, we have been playing politics with the lives of young dreamers—God has a word for us…and its harsh!
“The gospel is found wherever poor people struggle for justice, fighting for their right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” -James Cone
As those called to accompany, not to overtake, may we check our privilege as individual to see if we might reawaken a Gospel of love, of mutuality, of hope, and of selflessness in our time. What an interesting word: Selflessness. This is the only Gospel we have. We can’t choose another one, and it is time to take it (even the CliffsNotes version) seriously.
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.