The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
I sometimes give people books that have meant a lot to me, and the one I’ve given more than any other is To Bless the Space between Us by the late Irish priest and poet, John O’Donohue. It is a lovely volume of blessings for many occasions, and they tend to be very evocative of what the spirit is doing within and among us. O’Donohue defines a blessing as “a circle of light drawn around a person to protect, heal, and strengthen.” I would also say that the act of blessing involves the transfer of love from one to another.
For more than a decade I have used one of his blessings when I inter the body or ashes of one of our members, called a blessing “On Passing a Graveyard.”
May perpetual light shine upon
The faces of all who rest here.
May the lives they lived
Unfold further in spirit.
May all their past travails
Find ease in the kindness of clay.
May the remembering earth
Mind every memory they brought.
May the rains from the heavens
Fall gently upon them.
May the wildflowers and grasses
Whisper their wishes into light.
May we reverence the village of presence
In the stillness of this silent field.
Those words of blessing are etched on a standing stone at the entrance to our Memorial Garden, and they may cause those who visit to read them and to offer a blessing on all those who remains rest here at Plymouth.
O’Donohue writes “In the parched deserts of postmodernity, a blessing can be like the discovery of a fresh well. It would be lovely if we could rediscover our power to bless one another. I believe each of us can bless. When a blessing is invoked, it changes the atmosphere.” And for me the atmospheric change is steeped in self-giving love for another, who receives the blessing.
I agree that we — each of us — do have the power to bless and empower one another. You don’t have to be an ordained minister to bless others, and yet we do so at the end of every service, offering a benediction, which is a blessing on you. In fact, benedictus is the Latin word for “blessed.”
We also ask for God’s blessing on animals, as we did a month or so ago during our annual service. And we bless things as well, when we offer a blessing over a meal or with a prayer of dedication for the offering each Sunday. In some traditions, only the minister or priest blesses the offering, but I shifted the litany so that it’s something we all do in worship at each service.
When I was doing my field work in divinity school with the Franciscan AIDS Ministry in Denver, I became acquainted with the writings of brilliant Jesuit from India, named Anthony de Mello. (He’s also the second Roman Catholic priest I’ve quoted in this Reformation Sunday sermon!) He had the amazing ability to spin quips and aphorisms –- as Jesus did –- that turn things upside down or cause you to think about things in new ways. De Mello writes, “We sanctify whatever we are grateful for.” In other words, we make holy whatever we’re thankful for.
Think about that in your own life: what are you grateful for, and how does your sense of gratitude sanctify it?
Will you spend a moment with me, close your eyes if you wish, and just think about what you are grateful for, and ask for God’s blessing upon those people, things, or aspects of your very existence. [pause]
“We sanctify whatever we are grateful for.” We might just as well say that we consecrate whatever we are grateful for. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the verb “consecrate” this way: “to set apart as sacred; to dedicate solemnly to a sacred or religious purpose; or to give sacramental character by performing the appropriate rite.”
In a few minutes, we will do that: we’ll bring our offerings and our pledge cards forward, putting them in a basket, and then together we will ask for God’s blessing on them. This is the same sort of thing I do when we celebrate communion, and I consecrate the elements by setting them apart and dedicate them to a sacred purpose. In consecrating our offerings and our pledges, we are setting aside a portion of our wealth (which is the stored energy from our labor) and we are dedicating it to the ministry and mission of this church.
I think sometimes it’s easy to lose sight of the idea that money is stored energy and what we are doing as we pledge is sharing some of that stored energy to further the realm of God in our own time and place. Each of us has set aside a certain amount of our stored energy and today we gather as God’s people to bless it, to sanctify it, to consecrate it. And the act of setting it aside and asking for God’s blessing makes it materially and spiritually different from, say, what we give to our alma mater or NPR.
Turning to Jesus and his interrogative conversation with one of the scribes in today’s reading, what does it mean in tangible terms to acknowledge that God alone is God, that we are to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength? That we are to love our neighbor as ourselves?
One of the ways that plays out for me is in the idea that we ourselves are to be a blessing. We are meant to be living, loving wells that pour out fresh, clear water for God’s world. And I see you doing that: by visiting those who are sick, standing up for immigrants and refugees, sleeping out for the homeless, listening to those who need counsel, creating a home for nonprofits like PFLAG and Laudamus and Prairie Mountain Zendo and AA.
One of our late members, Bob Calkins, a wise retired psychiatrist, would always challenge me when I got into more abstract theology by saying, “Hal, it’s all about love.” And I have a feeling that Jesus would agree. It’s about the love of God, neighbor, and self…and being a blessing.
I think offering a blessing is an expression of love of God, neighbor, and self. Interestingly, though, none of us just gives a blessing…we are also the recipients of blessing from God and from those around us. And when we focus on the blessings we’ve received, it results in gratitude. And then the process turns like a Mobius strip, such that we have been loved and blessed, and in turn we want to love and bless others, and the process continues.
I count myself as blessed to be in this community which does so much to love and bless others not just here at Plymouth, but beyond the four walls of this place. You are a blessing!
Thank you and bless you!
© 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.
 John O’Donohue, To Bless the Space between Us. (NY: Doubleday, 2008), p. 198
 ibid., p. 95
 ibid., introduction.
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.
June 24, 2018
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
35 On that day, when evening had come, he said to them,
"Let us go across to the other side."
36 And leaving the crowd behind,
they took him with them in the boat, just as he was.
Other boats were with him.
37 A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat,
so that the boat was already being swamped.
38 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion;
and they woke him up and said to him,
"Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?"
39 He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, "Peace! Be still!"
Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm.
40 He said to them, "Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?"
41 And they were filled with great awe and said to one another,
"Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?"
It is the end of the work day for Jesus. He is most likely exhausted. He has been teaching all day. The crowds were so great at the seashore that he sat or stood in a boat moored just at the edge of the beach in order to teach. Imagine balancing your weight in a boat to teach. Speaking above the lapping of the waves. Telling stories to help the people understand the ways and realm of God. Watching their puzzled faces. Patiently explaining over and over what you thought you were making clear the first time. No wonder Jesus is tired! No wonder he falls asleep on the journey across the Sea of Galilee to the country of the Gerasenes....distant Gentile neighbors of the Jews.
Yet tired as he may be it is Jesus’ idea to make the crossing of the sea by night. To go to a foreign country with no particular preparation, a country where they may or may not be welcomed. He is not saying....”Hey, guys! Let’s get in the boat and go home! Won’t it be great to sleep in our own beds?” No, he is saying,” Hey guys! Let’s get in the boat and set off on another journey into unknown territory after a long, exhausting day of teaching, preaching....being with the crowds.” And they all go with him....they had to have been tired as well. They take him “just as he was” the text says. No preparation. Just as he was....remember that phrase, we’ll get back to it.
They, too, leave just as they were. And not just one boat but an entire flotilla of boats go with Jesus. Other boats, most likely fishing boats...perhaps the livelihood of an entire village, maybe more. They all set off together. They all encounter the storm together. They are all in peril. This is bigger than the fate of one small boat with Jesus and the disciples, as momentous as that might be. If any of them go down it will impact more than one family. If more than one perishes, God forbid all of them, the livelihood of several villages is wiped out.
The very image of setting off into the dark is bit scary for you and me. Remember there are not lights on this boat....not one has a cell phone flashlight or flashlight of any kind. Perhaps some of them were skeptical about setting out at night...knowing what might be when storms come up, knowing the storms on the Sea of Galilee.
When the storm comes up the disciples are truly scared. There are no life preservers. No rubber raft life boats. The waves are beating into the boat....the rain must be coming in sideways...so any lit lantern would be doused. Steering is getting more impossible. What if the boats are dashed against one another by the storm? This is a serious! “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” What do they hear? Snore.
No wonder they are upset! Frantic. Panicked. They are bailing water and steering and calling out locations...trying to row for shore....yet they cannot save themselves. They realize they are in the boat with this one who has shown them amazing healing miracles through the power of God, who preaches good news with stunning truth. A teacher sent from God. But he is not paying attention just when they need him most! He is asleep in the back of a boat....head even on a cushion! For God’s sake! “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”
In the dark days of WWII a sailing boat was adopted by World Council of Churches as the symbol of the church universal. Depicted on storm tossed seas it had a cross for a mast. We are in the 21st century church boat in the stormy seas of our times....sailing it seems at times with no particular preparation....no extra provisions...no life preservers....here we are just as we are .... and there are a flotilla of competing boats with us, boats of politics, culture, other faiths, other kinds of Christians. What can we do? Will we be effective in riding out the storm? Can we steer the boat? Or in the midst of all the other boats will we crash into one another causing more disaster in our efforts to save ourselves and help our neighbors?
In “The Wood Song”, Indigo Girl, Emily Saliers sings,
the thin horizon of a plan is almost clear
my friends and i have had a tough time
bruising our brains hard up against change
all the old dogs and the magician
now i see we're in the boat in two by twos
only the heart that we have for a tool we could use
and the very close quarters are hard to get used to
love weighs the hull down with its weight
Her words are an apt description of our life and times. Though we might think she is a bit optimistic in thinking it is love that weighs the hull down with its weight. Our boats seem weighted with greed and competition rather than love and compassion. Yet perhaps she see the bigger picture from our text today and is remembering Jesus in the boat. God’s love with us in human form, in the boat.
“God, do you not care that we are perishing?”
I amazes me how Jesus wakes up and immediately he is in the moment. No grogginess. No yawning. . Jesus, so attuned to the power of God that he wakes from deep sleep into complete chaos and knows immediately what to do. Remember that phrase from the beginning of the story. They took him “just as he was.” Jesus wakes up and just as he is....he rebukes the wind and says to the sea....”Peace! Be Still!”
In the Greek, he literally says “Be Silent! Be Muzzled!” And the wind and the sea obey. There is a dead calm And Jesus says to the disciples, to us.... “Why are you still afraid? Have you still no faith, no trust?”
Oh, that I could handle crisis in this way.....but I am not Jesus...none of us are. We are the ones in the boat with Jesus. And our job in the midst of chaos is to remember that we are not alone. To remind one another, we are not alone.
We row and steer and bail out the water AND pray! We protest and pray. We write letters and make calls and pray. We build housing and feed people in our church and pray. We volunteer and send aid, love even our unpleasant neighbors....AND WE PRAY! And God shows up! Just when we are think that this old boat of a church might be so tired that its breaking apart ....God shows up! For us just as we are. And God is always enough...there is always a love that passes all our understanding watching closely over the journey.
In the final verse of her song, Emily sings,
sometimes i ask to sneak a closer look
skip to the final chapter of the book
and then maybe steer us clear from some of the pain it took
to get us where we are this far yeah
but the question drowns in its futility
and even i have got to laugh at me
no one gets to miss the storm of what will be
just holding on for the ride
My friends, we may feel beaten and battered, old and tired as individuals and as the church, but Jesus meets us just as we are....just where we are...with the power and authority of God. And it is enough for any stormy journey. Remember, the task ahead of us is never greater than the power behind us. We know we will make it fine if the weather holds....but the weather never holds....there is always change in the midst of life....and the point is we can always go to the place of faith. Jesus is there waiting for us. Just as we are. Waiting to still the storms and heal the brokenness. That’s where we need to go. And together with the disciples of old we can say with awe and wonder, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?" Thanks be to God!
©The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson ,2018 and beyond. May be reprinted for publication with permission only.
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, Associate, Minister, is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. She is also the writer of sermon-stories.com, a lectionary-based story-commentary series. Learn more about Jane Ann here.
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