The Rev. Hal Chorpenning, Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
19 November 2023
There is a particular small book that I have bought and given to more people than any other. And it seems to catch the soul of some people. It’s a book called To Bless the Space between Us, and it’s a book of blessings by the late Irish priest and philosopher, John O’Donohue. One person heard me use one of the blessings contained in this book at a graveside service and was so touched by it that he had it engraved on the stone at the entrance to our memorial garden.
Here is what O’Donohue writes about blessing as an act: “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 in invoked, it changes the atmosphere. Some of the plenitude flows into our hearts from the invisible neighborhood of loving kindness. In the light and reverence of a blessing, a person or situation becomes illuminated in a completely new way.”
And so today, you have heard Jesus open the Sermon on the Mount with a cycle of blessings! Jesus “changes the atmosphere,” allows “light and reverence” to stream into the souls of his hearers, resulting in spiritual illumination. And this passage has continued to illuminate the followers of Jesus for the ensuing 2,000 years. In fact, many Christians consider the Beatitudes (or Blessings) as the very heart of the gospel, rendering what living life as a Christian entails.
I read a funny-tragic blurb from NPR a few days back. Russell Moore, and Evangelical leader, reports that “Multiple pastors tell me, essentially, the same story about quoting Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount – having someone come up after to say, ‘Where did you get those liberal talking points?’ … And what is alarming to me is that in most of these scenarios, when the pastor would say, ‘I’m literally quoting Jesus Christ,’ the response would be, ‘Yes, but that doesn’t work anymore. That’s weak.’”
Sometimes (perhaps even often) Jesus’ message tends to clash with some of what Americans have come to believe as “gospel truth.” And it isn’t just Christian Nationalists, it’s us, too. The Beatitudes are blessing the weaklings, the underdogs, the losers. That is who Jesus blesses! And it is probably who we should include as we bless others. And it is reassuring to know that when we find ourselves depressed, anxious, running on empty, that Jesus blesses us, too.
It is hard in our day just to be. Just to exist. Just to find moments of inner peace. Mass shootings and violent responses to anyone who looks like the “other” are becoming de rigueur in the media. There is so much noise from the 24-hour news cycle, social media, the conflict-inducing voices on Fox News and MSNBC. American political discourse today is characterized by conflict that generates copious amounts of heat and almost no light.
I was meeting with my therapist a few weeks ago, and she commented that “Anger is the new American drug of choice.” Think about that for a moment. Think how our culture has changed since before the pandemic. Think how you yourself have changed since before the pandemic. “Anger is the new American drug of choice.”
Of course, anger doesn’t stop at our borders. The rise of neo-fascism at home and abroad has been clear for the last five years. And the explosive violence in Israel and Gaza is polarizing and hate-inducing far beyond the Middle East.
Maybe the whole world needs a time out. But since that would be difficult to accomplish, I’m going to invite you into a brief moment of respite. I’ll read you my favorite blessing from John O’Donohue, and it contains an unfamiliar Irish word, currach, which is a small skin and wood-frame boat. I invite your close your eyes, relax you shoulder and neck muscles, feel the weight of your body in your seat and just breathe.
On the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble,
may the clay dance
to balance you....
Read poem here. 
Blessing can be soul-restoring. I hope that you have a sense of that right now. And know that you can come back to that place of quietness and contemplation whenever you need to.
As I was thinking about this sermon, I was rolling around the idea that we need a few new Beatitudes for the times we live in and the challenges we face today. I came up with a long list, but here are three blessings for our day.
1) Blessed are you when you refuse to use violence as a means of addressing another’s violence.
Gandhi said that “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.” And we can see where the Israeli-Gaza war is leading. Last week New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote about the myths that fuel the war: “The first myth is that in the conflict in the Middle East there is right on one side and wrong on the other (even if people disagree about which is which).
“Life isn’t that neat. The tragedy of the Middle East is that this is a clash of right versus right. That does not excuse Hamas’s massacre and savagery or Israel’s leveling of entire neighborhoods in Gaza, but underlying the conflict are certain legitimate aspirations that deserve to be fulfilled.”
Nonviolence on the macro scale can also be used on a personal level. When we disagree with someone, we can discuss things in a calm, adult manner that doesn’t demonize anyone. We don’t have to be oppositional, passive-aggressive, or engage in name-calling. We can speak the truth in love.
A second beatitude: Blessed are you when leave self-interest behind in order to serve others and build community.
We don’t live in a vacuum; we live in a society. This comes as news to many Americans because we are raised to be self-reliant, self-assured, and self-centered. Our culture is diminished by lack of civic engagement and participation, by our unwillingness to look at the good of the whole, rather than our narrow self-interest. “No man is an island, Entire of itself, Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” John Donne wrote that in 1624, and we visualized it anew when astronauts took a photo of earth from space, and we saw the reality that we all share this small, blue marble.
We are all in this together. Thinking more of “we” and less of “me” is a blessing we each can live by.
A third beatitude: Blessed are you when you build bridges instead of erecting walls.
This metaphor has become too close to literal truth on the southern border of the United States. If we say “build a wall” it may be on the border or it may be in a gated community or it may be a way of excluding those who are somehow different than you are. Interpersonally, stonewalling is a way of keeping progress from happening by cutting off improvement and communication.
People who are more interested in finding solutions than harboring resentments build bridges, not walls. They engage with others in order to advance a solution, rather than simply withholding forward movement. Maybe you’ve seen that happen in a personal or a working relationship. It is poisonous to a culture and to the people who form it.
Those are my three Beatitudes, and I offer them to you as a blessing. As you receive communion [share the offering] I invite you to think about what Beatitudes you might offer. What blessing do you have to offer the world?
 “Beannacht” in To Bless the Space between Us, (NY: Convergent, 2008) p. 10
 Nicholas Kristof, “What We Get Wrong about Israel and Gaza,” NY Times, Nov. 25, 2023.
First Sunday in Lent, Year A
My Farewell Sunday
Plymouth Congregational, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
This morning our scripture text is a familiar one for the first Sunday in Lent, a story that is in all three of the synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke. We hear from Matthew today who was writing to a Jewish Christian community intent on knowing who Jesus is as the Human One and the Son of God. And we hear language traditional and colloquial to Matthew’s time, “the devil” or “Satan” who “tempts” Jesus to see if he can trip him up and then “angels” who come to minister to him. I did a particular word study of the New Testament Greek to understand these words better. If we can, let’s put aside our preconceived notions of these words, images of anthropomorphic evil with a red body suit and horns, of little white winged cherubs, of traditional good versus evil, one of these must die notions, to hear this text in a new way. I am reading from the Common English Bible and I have used my word study to amplify our understanding of the text.
Then the Spirit led Jesus up into the wilderness so that the [accuser, the slanderer, known colloquially as the devil] might test him. After Jesus had fasted for forty days and forty nights, he was starving. The [slanderer] came to him and said, "Since you are God's Son, command these stones to become bread." Jesus replied, "It's written, People won't live only by bread, but by every word spoken by God." After that the [slanderer] brought him into the holy city and stood him at the highest point of the temple. He said to him, "Since you are God's Son, throw yourself down; for it is written, I will command my angels concerning you, and they will take you up in their hands so that you won't hit your foot on a stone." Jesus replied, "Again it's written, ‘Don't test the Lord your God.’" Then [the slanderer] brought him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. He said, "I'll give you all these if you bow down and worship me." Jesus responded, "Go away, Satan, [you slandering adversary!], because it's written, You will worship the Lord your God and serve only God." The [slanderer] left Jesus, and angels, [messengers of the Holy,] came and took care of him. Bible, Common English. CEB Common English Bible with Apocrypha - eBook [ePub] (Kindle Locations 37952-37964).
In 1979 Bob Dylan came out with a series of songs influenced by his understanding at the time of born-again Christianity. Not traditional praise music as was popular at the time. It was after all Bob Dylan. Though he did not remain a born-again Christian on his faith journey, he wrote some wonderfully pointed lyrics. This one song always comes to me when I hear the story we just read together. It’s titled “Gotta Serve Somebody.”
You may be an ambassador to England or France
You may like to gamble, you might like to dance
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world
You might be a socialite with a long string of pearls
But you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You're gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the Devil or it may be the Lord
But you're gonna have to serve somebody...[full lyrics]
Dylan gives us the clue to Matthew’s story of Jesus in the wilderness with the adversary. When you go off seeking on your journey of faith…. which really we are all doing all the time…. who will you listen to? Who will you trust? Who will you serve? Jesus had just been baptized by John and heard a voice from heaven say, "This is my [Child] whom I dearly love; I find happiness in him." (Matt. 3:17) So after this affirmation, Jesus does something we see him do many times in the gospels, he goes into the wilderness to pray, to seek the Holy, led by the Spirit. And it at just such times for all of us –and so for Jesus – that doubts arise, questions of trust. “Am I really hearing what I think I am hearing? Should I really be doing what I think the Spirit of God is calling me to do? Who am I to think I can do such things, to answer such a call? To even think that God is “speaking” to me?”
If we are seekers of the Holy in any way shape or form, followers of Jesus, we will have times when we wonder about our listening skills. This is what is happening in the wilderness story that we traditionally hear at the beginning of Lent, a time in the church calendar year, set aside for intentional seeking of God. So instead of seeing this story as a battle of superheroes, good versus evil, with one of them getting smote in the end, let’s listen to this story this Lent as a story about listening. It echoes the story of Adam and Eve in the garden naively listening to the serpent, the adversary. They learned that naïve listening has consequences. I have learned that lesson several times over in my life. I bet you may have as well.
In the wilderness, Jesus is supported by a long legacy of listening. He is steeped in the traditions of his family faith, in the teachings of Mary and Joseph and the rabbis of his youth. He is steeped in listening to the teachings of scripture as he answers each of the adversary’s challenges with words from Deuteronomy, teachings Moses gave the people as they entered the Promised Land. “God fed the people with manna in the wilderness and did not let them starve…therefore we know that God’s people do not live by bread alone, but by trust in God.” “Yes, I know God will hold me up and support me, but foolishly testing God by intentionally putting myself in harm’s way is not how I want to be in relationship with God…we are already in a relationship of trust.” Then finally, “Get behind me, Slanderer of God! I do not follow the Holy One for wealth and power, but for faithfulness, forgiveness and love.”
So how are our listening skills as we seek the Holy One this Lent? We, too, hear the voices that distract us from seeking faith, voices that mistrust the ways of God. How will we hone our listening skills? Hold that question as I tell you a bit about how I been honing mine.
Many of you have asked what I will be doing after retirement from parish ministry. I have been training over the last two years to be a spiritual director. As of March 18, I will have completed my training and be officially certified. And I must thank all of you for this opportunity because the continuing education money that Plymouth provides its pastors as part of our call agreements has supported the bulk of my training. You all go with me into my next phase of ministry! But what is a spiritual director? A spiritual director is someone who listens. She accompanies another holy soul on their spiritual journey by listening to their experiences, their questions, their doubts as well as their deep sense of knowing. The person might be Christian or Jewish or Buddhist or another faith, spiritual, but not religious, simply a seeker of the Divine. Through listening and observing, wondering with the directee, a spiritual director is a companion on the journey with some skills to invite deeper contemplation of the journey and deeper listening to the self where the Holy resides. Spiritual directors work one on one with people, in person or now just as commonly on Zoom. And if this process intrigues you, your two pastors after March 1st, Hal and Marta, can help you find a spiritual director. I cannot be that person because of appropriate boundaries. However, being the good listeners that they are, they will help you find the right spiritual director for you!
Now back to our question for today… How will we hone our listening skills this Lent as followers of Jesus? You don’t need two years of intensive training. You – we - have already started! We are here in worship listening to God’s Word in scripture, in music and song, listening to God’s presence in our lives in prayer [and the sacrament of communion], in fellowship with one another, in the call to service through our mission activities. How will we deepen our listening to the Holy this Lent?
Here is what I leave with you as I retire from parish ministry and move into the ministry of spiritual direction: Know that the Holy is immanent, right here and right now, with us, inherent in and permanently pervading and sustaining all that is, from the depths of space to the depths of you. We cannot escape God and God’s loving presence. Doubts may arise. Thoughts and decisions that feel like tests or temptations. When this happens, listen to the Holy within you, for you are each made in God’s image. Listen by steeping yourself in what truly sustains you, not just entertains you. What sustains you, nature, solitude and silence, prayer, reading, conversation with those you trust to listen with you to the Holy. Seeking you will find listening. Listening you will find direction and you will know who you serve. We cannot escape serving someone, as Bob Dylan, reminds us. We cannot escape listening deeply, as Jesus did in the wilderness. We can trust that in all the process of seeking, listening, serving we are held by the immanent, all-pervading love of God. I will be listening with you…even if from a distance. However, we will still be connected by that invisible string that is God’s immanent and loving presence.
Blessings and love and prayers for you, my beloved family of faith at Plymouth. Amen.
©The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson, 2023 and beyond. May be reprinted only with permission.
Deuteronomy 30.15-20 & Matthew 5.13-20
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning, Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
12 February 2023
People of a certain age will remember a rock musical loosely based on the Gospel of Matthew called Godspell. And whenever I read this section of the Sermon on the Mount, I always think of the song “Light of the World,” that early 70s rock anthem the company sings in Godspell. The great thing about that song is that it got the Sermon on the Mount out into the popular culture of the time. (Have you ever noticed how seldom our more conservative Christian brethren mention the Sermon on the Mount or even quote the historical Jesus?) It’s striking to me that John’s Gospel, the last of the four in our Bible to be written, quotes Jesus as saying, “I am the light of the world,” while Matthew and Luke record Jesus as saying, “You are the light of the world.” Think about the difference for a moment. Will you do something with me? Will you all please say with me, “I am the light of the world!’’ How did that feel? Odd or funny or does it fit like a glove? And now turn to a person next to you or behind you…make sure everyone hears someone else say this to them: “You are the light of the world!” How did that feel to say that to someone? And how did it feel to hear someone say that to you? Is it scary, empowering, daunting?
My friends, we have come through the valley of the shadow of death together these last three years of pandemic. But the light of the world is beginning to re-emerge. So, let’s help to kindle one another’s light and see how bright we can shine.
This week the Church of England finally agreed to perform same-sex unions. And it’s…2023! I was thinking about my experience 17 years ago as a delegate the UCC General Synod where we voted to affirm same-sex marriage. I was a delegate that year, and I quoted John Winthrop’s “City on a Hill” sermon to encourage delegates to vote in favor, which they did. And there was fallout. Churches left the denomination, and the Puerto Rico Conference left the UCC. So, here is what I said in 2005: https://vimeo.com/222746301
We have to make choices that matter and choices that affirm the fullness of life. Not just acknowledging but celebrating the marriage of same-sex couples brings light and life. When the UCC became the first mainline denomination to endorse same-sex marriage, we were letting our light shine, and it continues to illuminate others.
I sometimes see Colorado license plates that say, “Choose life,” and I assume that they are quoting Deuteronomy, where Moses tells the Israelites who were still in Moab and had not yet entered the Promised Land. He lays out two options for them: they can either choose goodness and life by following the ways of God or they can choose death by ignoring divine wisdom and guidance.
There is a larger truth there. Through Moses, God shows us a righteous path, the life-giving way of justice and shalom. Through Jesus, God encourages you and me to follow the path of self-giving love. It’s a costly path that will eventually cause us to abandon the false gods of self-interest, greed, and tribalism (also known as family values) in favor following Jesus in systemic change that supplies daily bread for all, forgives debts, and acknowledges the sovereignty of the Kingdom of God.
“Walking in God’s ways” is the guidepost that Moses sets out in Deuteronomy. And though we don’t talk too much at Plymouth about following the law, we need to be mindful of walking in God’s ways. That can be difficult, because we live in a culture that often presents a different path, telling us that it’s about me and mine, not about us and ours. That we should care about our own family first and then other peoples’ families as an afterthought if at all. That Christian faith is anti-science, politically regressive, and hate-filled. And yet, here we are, trying to walk in God’s ways not so that we earn individual merit that will get us into heaven, but so that we can get beyond the narrow confines of a hyperactively consumerist culture that is destroying humanity and the planet, God’s Creation, along with it. We are trying to follow the path of life and avoid the way that leads toward death.
And there is deep, deep joy in that journey together! I think we have missed out on some of that joy during the pandemic when we were isolated, but I certainly saw glimmers of it when our Beloved Community gathered to meet Reverend Marta and last Sunday to have our first big potluck in three years. (Eating together is an important piece of Christian culture, going right back to our Jewish roots.)
One of the adjectives that I’ve always used when I think about Plymouth is “zesty!” We are not a bland group of people who approach our faith as something flavorless and risk-free and just like every other mainline church. We are folks who don’t mind being trailblazing for others or being willing to step out on issues like LGBTQ issues and gun violence that our faith calls us to act on. We have tended to be the denomination that gets there first. Yet, I’ve worried a bit about whether the isolation of the pandemic years had beaten some of the savor out of us. Damn it, we’re tired. We’re afraid of what future holds. I know we are. Some of us are afraid about the economy. I get it.
Have you felt a little less zesty during the pandemic? Personally, I feel like a lot of my saltiness got leeched out into a brackish swamp of worry and fear and crisis; it has been tough to lead a church through this time. Something is changing. I don’t know if you are starting to sense this, but I am: Some of that savor is beginning to return. We are shifting from a church trying to survive to a church that will thrive.
I’m catching glimpses a profound shift here at Plymouth. I got a lovely email from one of our board chairs on Thursday morning saying what an exciting meeting she had with her board on Wednesday night. It’s a board that has struggled during the pandemic, and there is new life and new light there! They’re getting salty!
Did you get a little taste of saltiness when you hear Marta preach two weeks ago? Did you get a hint of flavor sharing a potluck with your fellow members last week? Yes, we have big financial challenges to face as a congregation, and we together we will walk through those challenges, not blandly, but with flavor!
I don’t know if you listened to the State of the Union address last week, but there was great resonance for me in what the President said: “Two years ago, Covid had shut down, our businesses were closed, our schools were robbed of so much. [And I would add churches.] And today, Covid no longer controls our lives…. As we gather here tonight, we’re writing the next chapter in the great American story, a story of progress and resilience.” That story of progress and resilience is true of Plymouth as well.
But here is what we have going for us: a wisdom tradition and faith that has survived for millennia that guides us on the path toward what is life-giving, that asks each of us individually and all of us together to choose life and not go off-course toward the way of death. We have a savior who has shown us the path of self-giving love and living a life that doesn’t just add joyful seasoning to our own lives, but also provides life-sustaining nutrient savor to the lives of others.
Let’s go for it, friends! Let’s choose life! Let’s get salty! Let’s live the life we were created for as part of this movement.
May it be so! Amen.
© 2023 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact email@example.com for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
Yes and No
A sermon based on Matthew 5:33-37 (The Message version)
Being clear about our own truth and our own boundaries, allows us to be more loving and is more of a service to God, to the other person, and to God’s Realm.
And don’t say anything you don’t mean. This counsel is embedded deep in our traditions. You only make things worse when you lay down a smoke screen of pious talk, saying, ‘I’ll pray for you,’ and then never doing it or saying, ‘God be with you,’ and not meaning it. You don’t make your words true by embellishing them with religious lace. In making your speech sound more religious, it becomes less true. Just say “yes’ and ‘no.’ When you manipulate words to get your own way, you go wrong.
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
Think of a time when you said yes to someone, but you really wanted to say NO. Or, a time when you said NO, but realized you really wanted to say yes. It might have been a small thing like going to a movie or getting ice cream or a big thing like taking a job or buying a house. You might have known your true answer in the moment or perhaps later.
This morning we are moving into our Annual Congregational Meeting and will be asked to say yes or no on matters of the congregation. So it seems appropriate to name and to know that Jesus speaks to us about matters of discernment and declaration. He seems to want us to be truthful and clear and to know ourselves as we declare our yes and no.
My sense is that Matthew’s Community has Jesus teaching about this in the important Sermon on the Mount because being clear about our own truth and our own boundaries actually allows us to be more loving which is more of a service to God, to the other person, and to God’s Realm. The Beloved Community is a place where community building covenants are made, and made well, and therefore kept. I think Jesus understood that community, real and worthy community that finds its way to justice and peace, is based on truthful, sincere and appropriate covenants. And relationship covenants are based on good boundaries of yes and no.
In a church I used to pastor, one of the three simple questions of new members that I asked during the ritual of membership was “Are you willing to say both yes and no?”
I must admit that I have often not been free and willing to do that because I was afraid that my authentic answer would affect the relationship negatively. Jesus challenges me and us in calling us to be authentic and in a way that builds relationships and strengthens community.
I have an idea about that and a process I want to share with you. Here’s what we often don’t realize or remember:
I believe that this positive No is at the heart of how we clarify and ground the oaths and covenants that build loving and just relationships. A positive No serves relationships by building them on the clarity and truth of what is and by minimizing the likelihood that whatever covenant has been made will be broken because a lurking unexpressed resentment or disagreement or disrespect. Let’s explore….
What do people do that is not a positive NO? Or, you could say, what is a negative No? Three things: accommodate, attack, or avoid.
A positive no honors both parties in that it empowers you to be true, to not hurt yourself or the other, and it keeps respect for the other and openness to the possibility of another agreement and to the ongoing relationship.
So how can one do this?
In most sacred traditions, including ours, there is the presence of a symbolic Tree of Life. That Tree can serve well as an image for how we can find our positive No which empowers us to follow the teaching of Jesus in being clear about our yes and our no.
Let’s divide that tree into three parts; roots, trunk, and upper branches and leaves. There are three parts to a positive No that can correspond to the tree image; an internal yes, our external No, and another external yes.
Let’s start with the roots.
If we are to have a positive No, we must go inward, down into our own roots and know what is important to us. What do we truly want? Where are we trying to go? What are we trying to do? What vision is calling to us? This taproot is our deep yes, our basic values and commitments.
For those following in the Christ Way, we are asked to say yes to some basic understandings
This place of the Yes, of the “roots” is the also the place to know who we are individually, uniquely, deeply.
What are my values? What do I want ultimately? What is mine to do? How is my unique life going to express God’s Yes to me and to all life?
This is the place to find our deep yes!
We can often miss what is true here because we are unaware of our unconscious motives and commitments. This inquiry into our deep roots is critical to working through our yes and no.
OK, now to the trunk of that tree.
This is the No that we identify and express. Out of our roots where we find our deep yes, comes the identification of what then does not serve that Yes. If I have made time commitments and affirm that I am only one person with limits of time and space, I might have to say NO to a request for volunteering or working overtime or giving my time up to television or continuing a destructive behavior like an addiction.
Setting a NO boundary is being faithful to our deeper Yes.
We might disappoint someone else, but we cannot really agree to something with integrity that we are asked unless we actually see the yes in it. Saying yes to things that we know are not the right thing for us in that moment leads to resentment and sabotage of that covenant later on, even unconsciously or passive-aggressively, or it leads to a loss of self-respect or a depression that hides anger. We can punish ourselves or another person (often both) for not being true to our deeper Yes.
When discrimination or hatred or insult come, if our deeper Yes to God’s Grace and our making in the divine image is to be served, we must reject messages or treatment that says we are less than that. The civil rights movement was and is a giant positive NO movement. Speaking up and saying Black Lives Matter is a positive No to all that does not honor equally the lives of black people. Speaking up and acting against the discrimination and hatred of gay or lesbian or transgender people is positive NO to all that does not honor equally the lives of LGBTQ people. These positive No statements are based in a deep Yes to seeing all of us as God’s children and worthy of love and respect.
OK, now the third part of the tree, the canopy of the upper branches and leaves. After expressing our positive NO, we not only honor and protect our own deep Yes, but we can then be open to another positive Yes in relation to the other. We can come from a place of self-knowledge, self-respect, and self-confidence to offer what is an acceptable agreement in relating to the other. Like those branches, we can reach out to the other, offering other possibilities, not this but that. I can’t go with you now or volunteer now, but perhaps I can reconsider in two months when my schedule changes. We can make an offer to the other person that honors our true connection or commonality with that other.
So there are three parts to a positive NO; a deep Yes, a specific No, and the offer of another possible yes.
Here’s how it might look.
A boss comes to you and asks you to work on Saturday on an important project. You know that this would score points with the boss and possibly advance your career, but you are also the coach of your daughter’s soccer team and promised that you would spend more time with her. What do you do?
To the roots: Where is your yes?
How does your career figure in what you want in life? Is it most important? Is family life and presence more important? Can advancing your career support your family life or have told yourself that before only to see it doesn’t work out this way? Maybe your boss has a way of using people in this way and doesn’t really come through or return the favor. While life is complicated and we might want to know more about how family is going in terms of money and relationship, and more about the boss and your history with her, let’s just say that you know inside that the thing you really know you want to do is to be there for your daughter and to coach the soccer game. You want to say yes to more family time. It will lead you to the life you value, to living out a value of children and family that you believe in. You may see that God calls you to human relationship more than money, and that you are called to respect yourself as much as the other person.
To the Trunk: Expressing your No.
Now you have to draw on the inspiration of connecting with your deep yes to family and to self-respect. This is the time to express your NO and say to the boss, “I can’t work this weekend. I have a commitment to family time that I want to honor.”
To the top of the tree: Another yes to the relationship.
Adding another possibility to the equation that would work for you and showing respect and appreciation for the other keeps the relationship open and keeps you from a negative no. It might sound like this:
“I can’t work this Saturday. I have a commitment to family time that I want to honor, but I really appreciate you thinking of me with this important project. I can hear that you would like to get it done ASAP. I know that the project is important for the company and I would be willing to work on it Sunday evening from 6-9pm. How would that work?”
How did that feel as I was telling it? Did anyone feel any butterflies in the stomach or anger when the request was made?
You may already see where this process is most difficult for you:
Mahatma Gandhi said
A ‘No’ uttered from deepest conviction is better and greater than a ‘Yes’ merely uttered to please, or what is worse, to avoid trouble.”
While there is much to learn of this process and more that could be said, I hope the tree image is a helpful way for you to remember and to identify your true yes and no.
Jesus teaches that it is important to have your yes be yes and your no be no, to be true to others requires being true to yourself. This is one Way to the Realm of God, to Beloved Community.
This, I believe, is what Jesus teaches.
This is the Path we are challenged to follow.
Remember Your Baptism
A sermon related to Matt 3:13-17
Rev. J.T. Smiedendorf
That baptism represents an immersion, a rebirth, into the living, loving Way of Jesus.
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16 And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw God’s Spirit descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from the heavens said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
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
Inspired by the presence of water in this morning's scripture story, I'd like to share with you one of my favorite stories of water.
In southwestern South Dakota there is a First Nation reservation called Pine Ridge, the home of the Oglala band of the Lakota Nation. On my first visit there a number of years ago, I was privileged to meet Duane, a middle-aged Lakota man. As a part of our day’s work with Re-Member, a nonprofit group on the reservation started by some UCC people in Michigan, we were sent to help Duane garden.
But Duane was no ordinary gardener.
He had three large gardens that covered more than an acre. And the garden’s produce of beans, squash, corn, and melons was meant for the elders in the nearby village of Porcupine. Knowing the scarcity and the preciousness of water on the reservation, Duane had written a successful grant proposal to purchase drip irrigation equipment. We were there to help lay it out and to plant. Duane showed me how it worked and how to repair it. I even planted corn for the first time, a novelty for a city kid like me.
Duane was utilizing the gift of water, wisely, for the greater good and life of the Lakota people.
Our sacred story of water this morning comes from Matthew’s early Christian community.
For Matthew, the story of Jesus’ baptism certainly helps accomplish his purpose of showing Jesus as a true Jewish messianic leader. Jesus, like so many Jewish leaders and the Jewish people before, entered the waters of the Jordan River and was deeply affirmed by God’s Presence there in an experience of the Holy Spirit. The esteemed Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann noted that this scene is a kind of endorsement reminiscent of those of the Davidic kings and that the Matthew story affirms God's blessing for the coming rule of Jesus.
It is that coming rule of Jesus or the Realm of God that Jesus proclaimed that is the deeper purpose of baptism. Baptism is a kind of initiation and immersion into that Divine Realm, a transformation into a new way of life where one experiences one’s true Divine affirmation and blessing and, like Jesus, leads a life guided and sustained by Spirit that serves Life, a life of love and integrity and service and generosity and community. Indeed, in Luke’s version of this story, John the Baptist’s call was to prepare for a new age, to become part of a movement to prepare the way for it, and when people asked, ‘What then should we do?’ John said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ he told tax collectors to collect no more than was proper and soldiers to give up their racket of extortion and simply do their jobs.
Baptism in the water of the Jordan certainly celebrated and sealed this new way of living for the individual, but it clearly had a goal of changing society, redeeming it from its ills of selfishness, poverty, violence, and corruption. John’s invitation called people to prepare the way of God by changing one’s life, preparing the way within, seeing and acting differently, living in the world and with others differently. Baptism meant there would be relational and social change leading toward the fullness of God’s Realm and that we each would need to choose, to act to immerse ourselves in this new reality.
Do you remember your baptism?
I don't remember my baptism in late 1963 because I grew up in a family in the Methodist Church and Methodists do infant baptism. While I do appreciate and truly love the welcome and the blessing that comes with celebrating a new life in our community through infant baptism, baptizing babies does miss a profound adult experience of consciously choosing faith not just in Jesus and in the God of Jesus, but in living into the Way of Jesus and toward the vision of the Beloved Community. Baptism is meant not only to be a profound reorientation of the inner world, but to be a profoundly countercultural choice. Baptism is a big deal, change of direction moment for youth and adults.
In fact, for the apostle Paul the ritual of baptism was such a big deal that it was imaged as a form of death, death of the old and rebirth into a new life in Christ. Indeed, there could be no better symbol than that of water for baptism, the waters of birth. And, despite the common church practice of sprinkling water on babies and sometimes adults, there could be no better symbolic act than full immersion into the water to re-emerge anew. It was not uncommon in the early church for those wishing to follow Jesus to study for months and then to be stripped of their clothing before experiencing a full immersion baptism, often on Easter, to initiate their new and full life in Christ, rising from the water to clothed anew in all white.
This morning I'm not here to propose a change in our practices of baptism, but I am here to call us again to immersing ourselves in the Way of Jesus, to be in the practice of becoming beloved community.
I am calling us to remember our baptism, to remember that life we are initiated into and who goes with us on that journey and how important it is. If you have not been baptized, I invite you to consider a conscious choice to follow the way of Jesus and to consecrate that choice in the ritual of baptism.
Remember your baptism.
The Way of Jesus is a profound way of love where there is a deep intention, a free will choice to love in a way that brings healing and justice that moves us beyond cycles of despair and bitterness, of violence and revenge. Baptism is acknowledging the choice to love in a way that goes beyond a judgment as to whether others deserve love, goes beyond simple tit for tat and eye for an eye, goes beyond the focus on what the other did or did not do. It goes beyond a reactive reality about the Other to a creative reality of the Self that simply asks, “How can I manifest love here and now? Love for myself and other, love for community and the whole earth? What form of love would serve the life in me AND the other now and moving forward?”
Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount summarizes the vision of what baptism initiates us into, the Realm of God, life in the Beloved Community where cycles that drain life are replaced by intentions and actions that give life.
Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you
Turn the other cheek
Blessed are the merciful
Blessed are the peacemakers
Blessed are the humble
Store up treasures of the Spirit
Seek first the Realm of God and do not worry
Treat others as you would like to be treated
Remembering our baptism is remembering that we are called to choose this kind of love.
The fact the you and I often fall short is not as important as remembering our baptism and choosing again the Way of Jesus.
Remember your baptism.
And remember you are not alone on that imperfect journey after baptism to live into this kind of love and service of Life.
I think of Duane still as someone who inspires me on that journey after baptism.
Some years later, I asked about Duane, and found out that he had died.
It was a sad reminder that like many on the Pine Ridge reservation, living to your late fifties is actually better than average. Measured by certain statistics, Pine Ridge is the second poorest place in the Western Hemisphere (after Haiti). In a land area the size of Connecticut, there is one grocery store and one hospital. Alcoholism and diabetes are rampant. Duane knew that most of the food that Lakota people can get is of poor nutritional value so he tried to do something about it.
So when I remember my baptism, and what I am to live for, Duane is one of those in the communion of saints who goes with me. Duane goes with me and helps me remember my baptism not simply because he was a kind and delightful man, but because even amidst the wilderness of poverty and discrimination, amidst a system of injustice and oppression that creates conditions for despair and death, Duane chose to love, to embrace a vision of life, to have a faith in action, to commit to the life of the people. He chose care for the elders and the children. Maybe he found his transforming sacred waters in the sweat of the prayer lodge, but I believe Duane was a baptized human, whether he ever did a Christian ritual of baptism or not, because he immersed himself in a higher sacred purpose beyond himself, a purpose to serve compassion and justice, a lifegiving purpose in the Realm of the Great Spirit.
Who can help you remember your baptism and what baptism is for?
Who in your communion of saints can whisper in your ear, when life for you or your family or this church is difficult, “Remember your baptism.”
Later in worship, during the passing of the peace and the last hymn or even after worship is ended, you are welcome to come forward to the bowl to dip your fingers into the waters and touch your forehead or back of your hand to remember your baptism.
Whether we are at life’s end or closer to its beginning or in the middle, it is wise to pray to God, “May we know Your Presence, May your longings be ours.” This is what Jesus sought and experienced in baptism and this is what we seek when we Remember our Baptism.
Imagining the Words of Joseph
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning
Plymouth Congregational UCC, Fort Collins, Colorado
18 December 2022
That was one of the strangest nights of my life. And it was such a difficult situation. (You think the holidays are stressful for you? Try being engaged to a wonderful, kind young woman who manages to become pregnant without the benefit of a husband…or even a human!) Try explaining that to the neighbors. You know there have been times when I have seen an unmarried woman stoned to death for becoming pregnant. It is not tolerated in our culture.
I was absolutely shocked when I found out that Mary was with child, since she and I had never had sexual relations and I had been sure — well, almost entirely sure — that she had not been with another man. My plan was to send her away to relatives during her pregnancy and to quietly end our engagement. She was the love of my life…what else could I do?
I’m not usually one to remember my dreams, but I do remember this one. The messenger of God appears to me (nothing like this had ever happened before) and he was radiant and spoke with the voice of authority, and said, “Don’t worry what everyone will say. Don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife. The child she carries was conceived by the ruach ha-kodesh, the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son and you will name him Jesus.”
I kept thinking to myself: why Mary? And why me?
You wouldn’t believe what both Mary and I endured during the pregnancy…the whispers, the gossip, the righteous people who gave us the cold shoulder, many family members turned their backs on us. Two things kept us going: our deep love for one another and our faith in the Lord and the messages he sent to us through the angels. It wasn’t just Mary who was chosen to bear a son; God knew it would take a compassionate father to love and raise Jesus, and I hope that I’ve done that well.
They had to find someone whose lineage could be traced right back to King David. In my family, we can trace our ancestors not just to David, but all the way back to Abraham. My father was called Jacob and his father was called Matthan, and his father was called Eleazar… back beyond the time of Exile. There are 14 generations from our ancestor Abraham to King David and then another 14 generations from the time of David to the Exile and then another 14 generations from the Exile in Babylon until my son Jesus was born.
Now that years have gone by, one thing puzzles me: I’ve heard that in all of the accounts being written about Jesus, they seldom about me, and while they recount the song that Mary sang about her soul magnifying the Lord and the poor receiving good things, there is not one word from me. I know, I shouldn’t be bothered about it.
But, I have to correct a few things about Jesus. Don’t get me wrong, he is a great son. But when they sing, “the little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes”… that is just plain wrong. The lungs on that child…ear-piercing shrieks when he needed to be changed. And that other song they sing, “All throughout his wondrous childhood, Jesus honored and obeyed.” Sometimes he honored and obeyed, but not all the time. You know about the time when he was a smart-Alec adolescent and he just disappeared. He scared the dickens out of Mary and me. We were up in Jerusalem to celebrate Passover, and we thought he was right there with us and our other children when we were headed home with all the others. One minute he’s with us and the next, he had vanished into the crowd. “Honored and obeyed,” as if! We were terrified, and then when we searched the crowd and didn’t find him, we headed back to Jerusalem, and there he was in the Temple Courts with the elders, asking questions and acting as if he knew it all. I’ll tell you, we were not only angry with him, but also astonished. He was holding his own.
Not bad for someone who worked with his father as a carpenter. He wasn’t a big kid, and sometimes he needed a little help hefting the larger logs that we sawed into boards, but he was great with his hands. Nothing rough-hewn about his woodworking…it was all well designed and put together. He had a real knack for carpentry. In some ways I wish he had stuck with it. His life would have been so much simpler.
He always admired his cousin, John, who frankly was a little “off-beat.” John had visions of being a spiritual teacher, which is fine. But instead of staying at home and becoming a rabbi, he set off into the wilderness, out toward the Jordan. It isn’t the most hospitable territory, and I heard that he subsisted on anything he could find out in the desert. Of course, there was no manna out there…just insects like grasshoppers and locusts and some wild honey, if you are lucky enough to find a bee’s nest. And John didn’t care what he looked like. He dressed in a rough cloak of camel hair that he had woven himself on a little hand loom. It still smelled of camel. Out there he was proclaiming that by being immersed in the River Jordan, people who truly changed their ways would be forgiven by the Holy One. And he had a following, to be sure. So many people trekked out to the Jordan to hear him and to be washed in the Jordan.
Jesus went out there also, and I told him to be cautious about his cousin, who… I didn’t want to say it, but … who is a little crazy. John baptized Jesus and then he said that John himself was not the one sent by the Lord, but that he was not worthy to tie the leather thong of the sandal on the one whom God had sent: his cousin, Jesus.
Jesus himself went into the desert wilderness for a full 30 days as if to test himself, to be sure that he was worthy of preaching about the realm of God, a world just as the Lord himself had intended us to live. No poverty. No hunger or thirst. No injustice or oppression. No empires to steal land and lives from those they invade. Instead, a world of healing the ill, restoring sight to the blind and hearing to those who were deaf. A world where peace and compassion and wholeness were the order of the day, instead of selfishness, greed, oppression, and ignorance.
I taught Jesus a lot about how to use a plane, a saw, and a hammer, but I couldn’t have taught him about God’s kingdom. That came from a different parent. So, that is where he is today, walking from place to place around the Galilee, proclaiming a new way of living in closer relationship to the Holy One. I know that he has made some of the religious authorities angry, because he sometimes says things that upset the Romans and even challenges some of the ritual observances that are central to our faith.
One thing that his mother and I did instill in him from the day of his birth right through to today: it’s all about love. We look around and we see the love of God everywhere: in the beautiful array of stars in the night sky, in the kindness of a parent, in the hospitality of an innkeeper, in simple bread and wine, in the births of children. And Jesus pushes the love of God even further. In fact, once I heard him say, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” An amazing boy.
How about you? What do you think life is all about? What is most important to you? What brings light into the world? What brings hope and peace and joy? If you listen to my boy, I know you will think that it it’s all about love.
I’ve thought a lot about its amazing power. That love is patient. Love is kind. Love is not arrogant or boastful or rude. It isn’t happy with injustice, but it is happy in the truth. Love trusts all things, hopes all things, and endures all things. Love never ends.
Maybe somebody should write that down and quote me for a change.
I bid you shalom!
Lineage and Soul
A short message related to Matthew 1:1-17 and All Saints/Souls Day
Lineage matters to the Soul
As a resource for learning, healing, and empowerment
As a connection to Life and Spirit
A record of the ancestors of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham:
2 Abraham was the father of Isaac.
Isaac was the father of Jacob.
Jacob was the father of Judah and his brothers.
3 Judah was the father of Perez and Zerah,
whose mother was Tamar.
Perez was the father of Hezron.
Hezron was the father of Aram.
4 Aram was the father of Amminadab.
Amminadab was the father of Nahshon.
Nahshon was the father of Salmon.
5 Salmon was the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab.
Boaz was the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth.
Obed was the father of Jesse.
6 Jesse was the father of David the king.
David was the father of Solomon,
whose mother had been Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah.
7 Solomon was the father of Rehoboam.
Rehoboam was the father of Abijah.
Abijah was the father of Asaph.
8 Asaph was the father of Jehoshaphat.
Jehoshaphat was the father of Joram.
Joram was the father of Uzziah.
9 Uzziah was the father of Jotham.
Jotham was the father of Ahaz.
Ahaz was the father of Hezekiah.
10 Hezekiah was the father of Manasseh.
Manasseh was the father of Amos.
Amos was the father of Josiah.
11 Josiah was the father of Jechoniah and his brothers.
This was at the time of the exile to Babylon.
12 After the exile to Babylon: Jechoniah was the father of Shealtiel.
Shealtiel was the father of Zerubbabel.
13 Zerubbabel was the father of Abiud.
Abiud was the father of Eliakim.
Eliakim was the father of Azor.
14 Azor was the father of Zadok.
Zadok was the father of Achim.
Achim was the father of Eliud.
15 Eliud was the father of Eleazar.
Eleazar was the father of Matthan.
Matthan was the father of Jacob.
16 Jacob was the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary—of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Christ.
17 So there were fourteen generations from Abraham to David, fourteen generations from David to the exile to Babylon, and fourteen generations from the exile to Babylon to the Christ.
For the word of God in Scripture
For the Word of God among us
For the word of God within us
I grew up Protestant with an early teaching about not worshiping ancestors. I guess it was one of several lessons to distinguish us from Roman Catholics (of whom I knew none) who seemed to name and look up to a lot of people other than Jesus. And in my home church I didn’t really understand why I had to listen to long boring lists of strange names of who begat who like the list we just heard that opens Matthew’s Gospel. Later I learned that Matthew’s author had a purpose to show his listeners that Jesus was thoroughly Jewish and kingly, and that God was working a plan for Good News. This plan included surprising stories and unexpected people. Matthew’s audience would have known those names and remembered their stories. It wasn’t as boring to them as it was to me as a kid.
With apologies for the excessive focus on patriarchs, let’s just say that Matthew knew lineage was important for his storytelling purposes.
I’ve learned that lineage is also important for the soul’s enlivening and enriching, for the soul’s liberation and loving. I credit my mentors and teachers, including lovers of myth, teachers of depth psychology, and First Nation people who revere their ancestors for that learning.
In a few moments we will celebrate a brief ritual of Totenfest.
Totenfest is a distinctive practice that grows out of the Evangelical Church side of the United Church of Christ. It has deep German roots. Indeed, Totenfest is a German word that means “Feast of the Dead” or “Festival for the Dead.” It was established in 1816 by Prussian Emperor Fredrick William III as a day to remember that nation’s soldiers who had died in the recently concluded Prussian War.
Totenfest became an important observance in the Evangelical Church in Prussia (established by the same emperor in 1817) as a day to remember not only the war dead, but also church members who had died in the previous year. We have associated it with the other similar church traditions of All Saints Day and All Souls Day. These are all practices of lineage connection.
There is wisdom in this commemoration and connection, food for the soul. And that’s what I want to briefly share with you this morning: the importance of lineage connection for the life of the soul.
Let’s use our imaginations to touch into this truth of lineage and soul:
Take a nice deep and easy breath and settle in to where you are. I encourage you to close your eyes and engage your imagination.
Imagine your parents standing behind you, mother on the left and father on the right. If had parents of the same gender or gender non-conforming, place them where it feels right to you. (If you’ve been adopted, place your birth parents there as well as those who raised you.) Settle in for a moment. See how that feels. Imagine gently leaning back into them. Any resistance? Any negative blocks? Make note of that. Now imagine the next generation standing similarly behind your parents. Again, note what you feel. And so on and so on until there is a massive pyramid of people, one generation behind the next, stretching into the horizon.
In this great generational pyramid of people and stories, there is all of humanity; truth and deceit, courage and cowardice, foolishness and wisdom, tragedy and triumph. It’s important for each one of us to come to a kind of peace with our family lineage. Making peace with this lineage and accepting it does not mean condoning its painful parts, the wounding actions and life denying behaviors of those in it, including our parents. Coming to peace means accepting being human, and their being human, and appreciating whatever you can, even if that is only appreciating the gift of life and the chance to have your life now in your time and to make your own choices, some of which may even be to heal the past which is still present.
So just pause for a breath, contemplate this pyramid and note how you feel about it. Ask for God’s grace and peace to be with you and your lineage. And I’m happy to connect with you and support you further if this image raises painful and unsettling feelings for you.
Allow this pyramid of family ancestors to fade into the mist of your mind’s eye.
There is second image I invite you into. Imagine making a lineage pyramid of the saints, the saints that inspire you. This is a pyramid of choice. I invite you now to fill in such a pyramid, imagining all the saints from all the ages and from any faith tradition who have inspired you, a spirit family who can be wind and support at your back. I can imagine Martin Luther King and JoAnn Robinson, a member at King’s first church who encouraged him. I can imagine St. Francis and Clare. I can imagine Gandhi behind me and Wangari Maathai of Africa. I can imagine some people at my hometown church and a college chaplain. I can imagine others who stood up for marginalized people and Creation. I can imagine mentors and teachers. Build your own spirit family right now. Fill it up with those who can support you as an inspiring example and a presence. In your mind’s eye, look back at all these, living or dead, and receive the blessing of these saints.
And, in your mind’s eye, turn back around and gently lean back into it. Feel its support. Receive that support. Take a deep breath and anchor that in you.
And now turn forward and see the younger ones and those yet to come, generation after generation forward, children, nieces and nephews, children of the community and larger world. Know that they are an extension of your lineage, of human lineage, of life’s lineage. Send love to them. Pray for them and commit to act for them and their world.
Now take another full and easy breath and gently come back from that imaginal space.
These lineage images and journeys are a kind of prayer practice that can show us where we can get strength and where wounds persist and need God’s grace and healing. When we do that healing work, we can release more love and energy and freedom for our lives now. Looking forward helps us locate where we are and give us perspective on what is important. Please, talk to me if you want to know more about this process.
Furthermore, being in the connection to lineage reminds the soul that we are not the originators of life, but recipients of life participating in a great chain of life where life is in some way living us, coming through each of us. Our culture has so often defaulted to individual power and choice of the individual that it has neglected a deep spiritual truth that we are in a great river of life not of our making. There is much that we do not choose. God so often chooses us and calls us. Spirit is moving in us and around us in a great lineage of life. God can move in our lineages of family and faith even amidst the painful passages. The soul needs a real connection to that Great Lineage of Life, human and beyond. We are all called by God to cultivate our gratitude for the lineage of life and to serve its healing and vitality. AMEN
7th Sunday after Pentecost
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
Intro: Our text today from the Gospel of Matthew comes after Jesus has been baptized by John and has spent his time of retreat and trial in the wilderness. He has just emerged from that experience to discover what is happening with John and to begin his own ministry of preaching and teaching and healing.
12Now when Jesus heard that John was arrested, he went to Galilee. 13He left Nazareth and settled in Capernaum, which lies alongside the sea in the area of [the ancient tribes of] Zebulun and Naphtali. 14This fulfilled what Isaiah the prophet said:
15Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, alongside the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles, 16the people who lived in the dark have seen a great light, and a light has come upon those who lived in the region and in shadow of death.
17From that time Jesus began to announce, "Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!"
Bible, Common English. CEB Common English Bible with Apocrypha - eBook [ePub] (Kindle Locations 37965-37972). Common English Bible. Kindle Edition.
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!
I was in high school when David Bowie’s “Changes” came out in 1972. I’m sure I heard it but didn’t really notice it. I was listening to Loggins and Messina, Carole King, John Denver with a little Allman Brothers thrown in. Now, thanks to our Director of Music, Mark Heiskenen, I have finally fully encountered and read the lyrics to David Bowie’s “Changes.” And watched him perform it live on YouTube. I’ve always been a late bloomer.
(Turn and face the strain)
(Don't want to be a richer man)
(Turn and face the strain)
(Just gonna have to be a different man)[i]
So goes the first refrain. The literature nerd in me wants to analyze the meaning of all the poetry in Bowie’s song, but I will spare you. Suffice it to say…. the song is about facing change and facing it within ourselves before and along with facing it in culture, in the world we live in. Facing change within to create change the without. And there’s a bit about the resistance we face from the world when we face into change.
Jesus could have sung along with Bowie as he faced into ministry and headed out of the solitude of the wilderness into the chaos of society. “Don’t want to be a richer man; turn and face the strain; just gonna be a different man; ch-ch-changes.” He was getting ready to face off with the powers of empire and establishment as he called God’s people to the vision of the kingdom of heaven. Other gospel writers use the phrase, the kingdom of God; Matthew, good Jewish Christian that he was, defers to kingdom of heaven instead because Holy One’s name is too mighty to even pronounce. Either way, Jesus is proclaiming a new vision of God being in the world and with the world. It is at hand, its near! It’s not a place…it’s a way of being in God’s ways, a way of living, and the time for it is now!
Now we know from family systems theory that when one person in a system decides to change, to grow up, to mature and to be as healthy as possible, to stop enabling the dis-ease of the family or the community, that resistance occurs. Oddly, the system, the community resists healthful change at first, before it can spread its healing power throughout the whole system. Jesus certainly experiences that resistance throughout his ministry. He is proclaiming God’s ways “to those who have treated God’s sovereignty with disdain.”[ii] John the Baptist has experienced that resistance as he proclaimed Jesus’ coming, preaching the new vision of the kingdom of God. He has been arrested and we know he will be executed, a foreshadowing of what is to come for Jesus. The powers of the worlds, those who disdain God’s ways, do NOT like change, do they? They like to move comfortably in their habits of greed, oppression, patriarchy and fear without challenge. Too Bad, says Jesus! Those are not the ways of God! There is a new way of justice, compassion, healing and love! It is God’s way and it is here! Time to change!
Too Bad, we say as the followers of Jesus. Bullying, lying, excluding others, scarcity thinking, greed these are not the ways of God! Poverty, hunger, homelessness, lack of healthcare, these are not the ways of God! God’s ways are compassion, inclusion of all, abundance, enough resources, food and shelter for all, listening to every voice! Things need to change! And as we proclaim God’s ways we too meet/ have met resistance.
Change…..we are weary of change and of proclaiming change in so many ways. Yet it is the stuff of life. How do we come alongside the changes God is calling us to proclaime in life-giving ways rather than life draining ways? I recently Octavia Butler’s sci-fi novel, The Parable of the Sower. Published in 1993 and set in the years 2024-2027, it is powerful and prophetic. Times are apocalyptic, climate change and destruction, political upheaval so devastating that people must live in walled communities for protection, unchecked violence is everywhere, water is precious and expensive. As the protagonist, a Black teenage young woman, observes civilization crumbling around her, she begins to write verses of observation to stay hopeful. “All that you touch You Change. All that you Change Changes you. The only lasting truth is Change. God is Change.” “We do not worship God. We perceive and attend God. We learn from God. With forethought and work, We shape God. In the end we yield to God. We adapt and endure…. And God is Change.”[iii]
Now I’m still chewing theologically on the assertion “God is Change…. Shape God.” Yes,…. and I’m not sure I can or want to sum up God in that one word. However, it got me thinking about the change that we are facing in our world here in 2022. Climate change, political upheaval, gun violence, pandemic…. scary changes. AND there are miraculous changes at work in our world as well, some made by human hands and some within the very systems of the natural world. So how do we live and work with the changes of our world proclaiming and manifesting the kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed? How can we come alongside change so that even if it feels like upheaval, it is life-giving, full of justice and non-violent truth-telling?
Pondering these questions, Spirit led as Spirit does in sometimes circuitous routes to a system of “social change work” that is vital and happening in our country called, “emergent strategy.” Emergent strategy has been developed particularly by women and people of color as well as our sisters and brothers in the LGBTQ community. I think its time we let those who have been marginalized take the lead. I want to learn from them. I am learning from the book, Emergent Strategy, Shaping Change, Changing Worlds by adrienne maree brown. brown, a social justice facilitator of twenty-five plus years, healer, writer and doula, asks: “what can [the natural world] teach us about how to be humans and how to be humans in a better relationship with each other?” What emerges from brown’s question is “emergent strategy,” ways of change for our time. Ways of change that, I believe, go hand in hand with the ways of the kingdom of heaven which is at hand and among us!” Indulge me as I briefly explain her work a bit more because it this way of change-making will be informing my preaching in the months to come.
“Emergence,” says brown in a podcast interview, “is the way complex systems and patterns arise out of relatively simple interactions. Strategy is the ability to adapt to changing conditions, while still moving towards our vision of freedom and the future and being in [the practice of emergence.] … how do we get in a right relationship with change that allows us to harness and shape things, towards community, towards liberation, towards justice?”[iv] And the strategic practices of change are taken from creation.
What if we look at the marvel of communication that happens in flocks of birds, such as a murmuration of starlings which can be huge, upwards of over a million birds at a time. I’m not sure I have seen one live in the world, but I have seen videos. “They move in synch with one another, engaging in clear, consistent communication and exhibiting collective leadership and deep, deep trust. Every bird focuses attention on their seven closest neighbors and thus manage the larger flock cohesiveness and synchronicity.”[v] Wow, it’s all about relationship, not policy! Or perhaps, the policy is in the relationship! The kingdom of heaven is at hand and is like a murmuration of starlings! How can we work like that as church?
Or consider a stand of oak trees surviving the fiercest hurricane winds, such as Hurricane Katrina, because their roots are so intertwined underground in life-giving care for and communication with one another? Or the underground mycelial network of mushrooms that not only creates communication, but food for the growing mushrooms above ground as it also detoxifies the soil? The kingdom of heaven is relationship like oak trees and mushrooms! So, I ask myself, how can we learn emergent strategic systems of change from these miraculous, yet ordinary, beautiful relationships of nature to be a better outpost for the realm of God, a better church community turning to face the strain of change as our friend, David Bowie prompts us?
Change is within us, upon us and we cannot hide, can we? God has given us the leadership of Jesus’s call…. “Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!" God gives us the spiritual imagination and social justice intelligence of change leaders such as adrienne maree brown, the prophetic imagination of writers like Octavia Butler. The world is at a tipping point, longing for relationship leadership, ripe for the justice of non-violent change-making that works with creation not against it. God’s realm is at hand, upon us, we are in it NOW!
So, I leave you with this challenge, look and see how Spirit is among us transforming our hearts and lives through relationship and communication for the challenge of the kingdom of heaven. It’s already happening! And how can we strengthen our changing community in new and vital ways, such as emergent strategy, so that we focus on the kindom of heaven rather than majoring on minor issues that can pre-occupy our time out of fear and lack of vision?
(Turn and face the strain)
Jesus is calling, calling us to be the change we want to see! The kingdom heaven is coming!
©The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson 2022 and beyond. May be reprinted only with permission.
[i] David Bowie, “Changes” on YouTube
[ii] Douglas R.A. Hare, Matthew: Interpretation Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, (Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville, KY, 2009, 29.)
[iii] Octavia Butler, The Parable of the Sower ebook, (Open Road Integrated Media: New York, NY, 2012, 10, 63.)
[v] adrienne maree brown, Emergent Strategy, Shaping Change, Changing Worlds, (AK Press: Chico, CA, 2017, 67.)
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
1 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness
to be tempted by the devil.
2 He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished.
3 The tempter came and said to him,
"If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread."
4 But he answered, "It is written,
'One does not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'"
5 Then the devil took him to the holy city
and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple,
6 saying to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down;
for it is written, 'He will command his angels concerning you,'
and 'On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'"
7 Jesus said to him, "Again it is written,
'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'"
8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain
and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor;
9 and he said to him, "All these I will give you,
if you will fall down and worship me."
10 Jesus said to him, "Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
'Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'"
11 Then the devil left him,
and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
About a month ago your three pastors made the preaching schedule through May and chose scriptures for each Sunday. I came up with this Sunday and with this text. At first I resisted....it seemed too hard and too harsh to deal with...you know, vanquishing the devil and temptation, blah, blah, blah! And the world is hard and harsh enough right now. Then I remembered that I really like the wilderness....the physical one that is...I have hiked the deserts of New Mexico and Arizona, the bogs and meadows and hills of Scotland and Ireland where standing stone circles and the ruins of ancient worshiping communities can be found. I love to walk on a beach, particularly when I can find a stretch not inhabited by vacation homes. I have hiked in our Rocky Mountain foothills and occasionally in our mountains. I like being alone in the wilderness with time to contemplate and even pray.
I remembered my journal from a retreat center in Tucson that paraphrases Hosea 2:14 on its cover, “The desert will lead you to your heart...where I will speak.” Hosea was an 8th century BCE prophet whom Yahweh called to bring the straying Hebrew people back to their covenant with Yahweh. His name actually means “Yahweh helps.” In the book of Hosea, the prophet uses his own failing marriage to a woman named Gomer who has been unfaithful to him as the metaphor for the covenant relationship of Yahweh with the chosen people. The Holy One speaks through the prophet saying, “I will bring the unfaithful one to the wilderness and speak tenderly to her.” Or as paraphrased for a 21st century retreat participant, “The desert will lead you to your heart....where I, the Holy One, will speak - tenderly.”
Jesus had been schooled in the law and the prophets when he came to John for baptism and was then led by the Spirit into deeper wilderness for solitude and prayer. Perhaps as the joy and responsibility of his baptism filled him while following the Spirit, he remembered Hosea and his words. Perhaps he went to the wilderness so the Holy One could speak to his heart, so that he can discover in prayer his identity as God’s beloved child. This is infinitely more interesting than going to the wilderness to be bludgeoned with provocative words so he can vanquish Satan.
In the Judaism of Jesus’ time, the devil was an accuser or adversary, a questioner. The Hebrew word satan, could be used for any accuser. Ha-satan was the name of the accuser that comes to question Job and tempt Jesus. The devil is not the personification of evil or the great horned beast of the frozen ninth level of Dante’s Inferno who governs hell, punishes the wicked and chews on those who betray others. The satan or the devil tests and tempts with questions.
Notice when tempter comes. Not during the 40 days and night of prayer, but after. Forty days and nights is a length of time that is not a literal time, but it’s meant to remind us of Noah in the wilderness of the flood, of Moses on the far mountain receiving the 10 commandments from Yahweh and of the Hebrew people wandering 40 years in the wilderness. 40 days and nights means “a substantially long time.”
The tempter comes when Jesus is famished, physically weak, perhaps a little hangry, to test Jesus’ identity, the naming by the Spirit at his baptism as the beloved Son of God. The Hebrew translated in passage as “If” might be better translated “since to emphasize Jesus’ identity. The tempter says, since you are the Son of God” Son of God, the Divine and Human Son of the Holy One, what do you think of these three things? Number one, will you choose scarcity thinking over abundance... exploit your God-given gifts to make your own bread instead of waiting on the Spirit to provide sustenance at the right time? Number 2, will you pridefully exploit your divinity over your humanity by jumping from the temple and commanding angels to save you? Will you make a spectacle of yourself as the Son of God to gain notoriety? Number 3, will you exploit your God-given power to have power OVER others, to rule the world, to play by the rules of empire rather than authentic relationship and compassion?
And Jesus answers with scripture each time, quoting the ways of God set forth for all the Hebrew people in the laws and the prophets. “Human beings live by the Spirit of God within them, not just by bread alone. Human beings do not test the Holy One who sustains us. And finally in a burst of passion, “Away with you, Satan. Leave me, you accuser. It is written that the people of God worship the Holy One alone.”
And then we are told that angels – messengers of God – come and minister to Jesus, serve and take care of him. Are they tall, stately beings with large white wings? I think they are more likely, friends coming to find Jesus at the end of his retreat with bread and wine. Or maybe the voices of a people in a caravan that lead him to an oasis with water and fruit. And maybe the message is a sense of deep peace coming from within his heart. However the messengers and messages from God show up they tell him with help for his mind, body and soul, “You are beloved!”
So what about us? For we too are God’s beloveds. We are made in God’s image and we are invited into the spiritual wilderness of the Lenten season. What will our wildernesses contain? That is the risk...the danger... isn’t it? The physical wildernesses I have been in are full of beauty, often full of prayer and a sense of the Spirit’s presence. Yet you have to watch your step when you are hiking in a wilderness. They have also been for me places of loneliness and sadness. As for Jesus, they are often full of tough questions. Besides physical wildernesses, I have experienced the wildernesses of deep grief, divorce, unemployment. I have to say I felt rather rudely thrust into those....not gently led by the Spirit. Yet I can tell you that the Spirit never left me, even in the darkness of despair and doubt, the Holy One was/is still with me. Our God is not an accusing God....our God is a companioning God.
So, my friends, go forth into the wilderness of Lent today for there the Holy One, the Spirit of God will speak to your heart. Tenderly and with compassion. In tough love and with questions. You will be tempted at times to give up the spiritual practice you have chosen or to cheat on whatever life habit you are including to challenge you. You will be tempted to do things an easier way. You may be called by the Spirit to an action of love and justice that you never expected. You may go deeper into prayer in ways that surprise you. As Jesus was tempted, you may have to wrestle with an attitude of scarcity instead of claiming God’s abundance. You may come up against false pride and be confronted with God’s ways of humility in relationships. You may be given a vision of power – will you use your personal power over someone, some group, some situation? Or will you choose Jesus’ empowering, life-giving way of power with people? The power of compassion and cooperation in God’s love.
The gospel writers do not elaborate on Jesus’ inner struggle during the 40 days of prayer, his wrestling in the wilderness. We do not see the times he might have felt failure and despair, only to be visited by the loving Spirit of God speaking to his heart. A presence that turned him around, brought him hope. Perhaps those angels are named Hope. In the wilderness of Lent we will stumble and fall. Because God is a companioning God, we will also begin again.
“Begin again,” life whispered in my ear;
For some days are beginning days.
Some days are designed to be the day we try again,
And on those days—the sun rises for you.
On those days, the birds sing for you.
On those days, God is cheering for you.
That’s just the way God and beginnings work.
For when your heart is broken and your life is in pieces,
Or when the addiction or the depression have found their way back
into your bones,
Or when you lose sight of the person that you were called to be,
The wilderness will sing to you, “Begin again.”
“Begin again” with the person you want to be.
“Begin again” with the person you want to love.
“Begin again” with the knowledge of your faith.
The sun is rising for you.
May it be so. Amen.
© The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson, 2020 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.