The Rev. Hal Chorpenning, Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
July 2, 2023
I love the United States. As we near Independence Day, I acknowledge that we are up to our neck in problems. Yet, I don’t think that we are beyond redemption. One of the key issues we need to address is refocusing on the collective good, which is at the heart of divisive politics, wealth disparity, and climate change, among others. And it’s slow work.
You may wonder what that has to do with the rather difficult text Jim read from Matthew’s gospel. There is quite a mix of things going on: Jesus tells us that we have individual worth, and that God knows even the number of hairs on our heads (a significantly lower number for some of us than for others).
The next section seems bizarre, because of Jesus’ nonviolence. Where does this “I have come not to bring peace, but a sword” thing come from? It draws on and echoes the prophet Micah, who encourages us not to put ultimate faith in the people, even our families, but rather to put our trust in God.
What Jesus is talking about is reshaping our family ties in order to build the new community of his followers. Think about the fishermen who were Jesus’ first disciples. Jesus tells them to leave their nets and follow him. That isn’t easy either for the disciples or for the families they left behind.
How’s that for supporting “family values?” (Whenever one of our more conservative brethren trots out that phrase it makes me wonder if they’ve ever read the four gospels.)
What Jesus is doing is ripping the fabric of society. This is subversive, unpopular stuff. But as he deconstructs the traditional family unit, he is putting something else in its place.
Two chapters later, as a crowd surrounds Jesus and his own mother and brothers are trying to squeeze their way in to see Jesus, he quips, “’Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ And pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’”
This new family eventually becomes the church. We are the family of Jesus when we do the will of God, and the best way to judge the will of God is by looking to the words and the way of Jesus. Sometimes we even refer to “our church family.”
Last week, Don and Sherry Bundy sent me a link to a really interesting New York Times opinion piece called, “What Churches Offer that ‘Nones’ Still Long For.” Nones, by the way, are people who have no religious affiliation, and one scholar surmises that one in five is an Atheist (who is sure God doesn’t exist), a second is an Agnostic (who questions the existence of God), and the other three are unaligned with any particular faith tradition but think that God is there. Clearly, that is a diverse group of people. A key asset that churches, mosques, synagogues offer is community. And in an age of detachment and isolation, it’s more important than ever.
In the article, one young man in his 20s tells of losing his job and asking his congregation to pray for him during their prayers of the people. After the service was over, another member came us and said, “Son, if you need a job, you can come work for me tomorrow.” The journalist continues: “While that might sound like a scene from a Frank Capra movie, church really does wind up being one of the few places that people from different walks of life can interact with and help one another.” She continues, “I asked every sociologist I interviewed whether communities created around secular activities outside of houses of worship could give the same level of wraparound support that churches, temples, and mosques are able to offer. Nearly across the board, the answer was no.”
Intergenerational community doesn’t just happen, it has to be created and sustained. Faith communities that draw on multiple generations can do amazing cross-fertilization among their members. As you heard Brooklyn say a few weeks ago, teens who have older folks in their lives (who know their names) tend to have a far easier road ahead than those who do not. Getting to know some teens might be a blessing to some of you who are elders and might be experiencing a sense of loneliness and isolation.
Here is something the article’s author misses: it takes work to create and sustain community. It doesn’t just happen; we have to be intentional about being engaged and involved. It takes each of us committing ourselves to get involved in the community.
A lot of that happens behind the scenes here, so you may not know that a member of your Plymouth family had to go by Wilbur’s to buy port and to Whole Foods to buy bread and then prepare today’s communion. Nobody waves a magic wand…people work to make that happen. You may wonder how our trees and shrubs get trimmed and the windows washed and the weeds pulled…members work to make that happen. You may not realize that there are members of our congregation — Faith Community Nurses, Stephen Ministers, Congregational Visitors — who add to the pastoral care provided by our ministers. Perhaps you’ve wondered who makes decisions that affect the congregation, and there are six boards as well as a Leadership Council who do that as volunteers. That takes time and commitment. There are so many more volunteers who make this congregation vital, and each of them helps create community. That investment of time and intention creates what Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam calls “social capital” in his book, Bowling Alone.
Here is a clip from a new documentary about Putnam’s work and ways we can recover some social capital. [View trailer for “Join or Die.”].
Here is the rub: we have become a nation of people who have shifted so far toward radical individualism and independence that we’ve lost the communal compass bearing guiding our society. We forget that we are in this together. We have lost the thread of our INTERdependence that held together a disparate nation. But Putnam asserts that we can turn the tables by leveraging our involvement in community organizations like churches. This is crucially important for our society.
I’d like to go back to the scripture for today, because it helps us understand why churches are different than the Lion’s Club, Soroptimists, Kiwanis, or soccer league, or youth theater — all of which are great! The New York Times article states, “A soccer team can’t provide spiritual solace in the face of death, it probably doesn’t have a weekly charitable call and there’s no sense of connection to a heritage that goes back generations.” But there is something even deeper that the journalist doesn’t capture.
Church is different, because we have formed and are forming a different type of community that exists because Jesus called us to become part of this new, INTERdependent community that cares for one another, for the widow and the orphan, the alien and the stranger. And we do it as an expression of our love of God.
One Sunday about six months ago, a young Palestinian man named Darwish came into our church needing food, shelter, and guidance. The first thing that happened was that Brooklyn and Mike McBride made him a cappuccino…an even better start than offering a cup of cold water that Jesus mentions. Then Darwish talked with Jane Anne and a group of concerned folks who helped him get student housing, work on an asylum application, got him healthcare, greeted his wife and son when they arrived from Jordan. And today, he has been accepted into a Ph.D. program at CSU in the College of Engineering. Nobody asked if Darwish was a Christian or if he had any interest in becoming one. Each person on “Team Darwish” acted from a sense of Christlike compassion, and it changed Darwish’s life.
We are a community that has incredible potential to grow in our faith, our commitment, our involvement…our INTERdependence. Isn’t that the kind of faith community you want to be a part of? Don’t we embrace the values and vision you want your children and grandchildren to inherit?
We simply cannot do such things all on our own. We need a strong, committed community to help all of us live into our Christian faith, as an INTERdependent community bound together by covenant. Christianity is a team sport!
Here is another secret: We can’t do any of this without you. The magic only happens when we all pull together as a family of faith. If you want to be part of the movement, if you want to get more involved, we can help! We have an easy-to-access online tool called Ministry Match, which links your desire to help with places where it’s needed. It takes less than five minutes to sign up and enter your preferences at plymouthucc.org/ministrymatch.
So, even as we celebrate our nation’s independence from Great Britain, I invite you to celebrate INTERdependence Day here at Plymouth. Right here, right now. Amen.
© 2023 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact hal at plymouthucc.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
 “What Churches Offer that ‘Nones’ Still Long For” by Jessica Grose in New York Times, June 28, 2023
This week, I got to spend lots of time with young people at Vacation Bible School. There, we were learning about how to be superheroes. We were helping out with a Hero Hotline, where superheroes would call in because they were facing big problems. Then we would spend our morning learning about different Bible stories that helped these heroes in their tough situations. And we had lots of fun making crafts, singing songs, dancing, and playing games.
This weekend, I got to spend lots of time with not-as-young people at the Annual Rocky Mountain Conference Meeting. I got to meet tons of UCC people from all over Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming. There, we did lots of work talking about some problems we’re facing in the world and as a Church. And we also had lots of fun singing songs, participating in worship, and making good connections.
The size of the harvest is bigger than you can imagine, but there are few workers.
Therefore, plead with the Lord of the harvest to send out workers for his harvest.
I saw so many of God’s workers this last week. I see so many of God’s workers right now! Throughout this morning, I will say: Where are the workers? And I want you all to say: We’re right here! Got it? Let’s practice. Where are the workers? (We’re right here!) Where are the workers? (We’re right here!) Wow, listen to that. So what could Jesus possibly mean when he says there aren’t enough workers for the harvest? I want to explore together what I think Jesus might be getting at here.
Where are the workers? (We’re right here!)
I want to start by pointing out that in this passage, we first see Jesus teaching and healing. By the end of this passage, we see the disciples doing the same things Jesus did. So I think maybe the “workers” are people who are committed to doing the stuff Jesus did - or the stuff Jesus wanted.
Where are the workers? (We’re right here!)
So why does Jesus say that the workers are few? I think it’s because there are not always enough of us who are REALLY digging into doing the work. We are tired. We are worn out. Maybe we don’t know where to start. Maybe we feel like our work isn’t actually working. Maybe we don’t know how to be helpful or how to change things for the better because it’s hard to see a world that can get better. It’s hard to see how to heal our divides. It’s hard to know the right answers.
So what do we need? In order to do good work, what do we need? I think we need to know three things: REST - Jesus took naps, even and especially when everything around him was a little bonkers, PLAY - Jesus spent a lot of time enjoying food and fellowship with lots of people, including his closest friends, and LIBERATION. Okay, that one’s a big word. Can you say liberation? (liberation)
Liberation theology is focused on giving freedom and power to ALL people, especially our most vulnerable people. Liberation theologians are asking this question: How do I do the work of salvation and liberation in the present, in the now? Because the kingdom of God is here & now.
Rest. Play. Liberation.
You’ve all been given a piece of construction paper. I want you to draw yourself engaging in this work. Draw yourself resting or playing or liberating - whatever you feel that might mean for you. Feel free to draw while you listen. You - person of God - are made to do God’s work. We - people of God - do that work all together. So I want you to draw yourself resting or playing or liberating, and we will put all these pictures together to show off what we create in our community.
Where are the workers? (We’re right here!)
In the book of James, it is written that pure religion cares for orphans and widows. God takes care of those with the least amount of power in society!! And the work of God - the work of Jesus - requires us to do that too. I believe that children and youth are a vulnerable population - perhaps one of the more vulnerable populations here at Plymouth. This is why I am passionate about faith formation. This is why I am passionate about worship with kids and youth. And this is why I am passionate about CROSS-GENERATIONAL worship experiences.
CROSS-GENERATIONAL is a little different from our usual buzzwords like intergenerational or multi-generational. We can have different generations in the same room - and we do that every Sunday - and call ourselves “intergenerational.” But are we reaching ACROSS the generations? Friends over 60, do you have friends who are 6? Or friends who are 16? Do you know their names? Research tells us that students who grow up with ten adults in church who know their name are exponentially more likely to stay in church when they become adults themselves.
Where are the workers? (We’re right here!)
I also like using “cross-generational” because it throws in a cute little reminder of Jesus’ work - specifically the work of the cross. This last quarter, I read a book for school called Spirit and Capital in an Age of Inequality, and in that book, I found this gem: “Jesus’ invitation to take up the cross and follow him involves the constitution of a community where leaders are cultivated, power is distributed and new forms of kinship disrupt the dominant political economy.”
Church, what if we made cross-generational friendships, distributed power across our age gaps, and cultivated leadership from our youngest friends? I think we would learn how to play. I think we would remember how important it is to take naps and get all the rest we need. I think liberating my young friends in our church community would also liberate us not-as-young friends.
Where are the workers? (We’re right here!)
You received without having to pay. Therefore, give without demanding payment.
What God gives us - we should give just as extravagantly. So here is my next question: Where is God sending the workers? Where is God sending us? I would love for us to get really creative - to use our imaginations - and to dream about our collective vocation and our communal orientation. Where is God sending Plymouth? Where are we being invited to create spaces for rest, play, and liberation? Where are we called to work?
Maybe you are feeling called to volunteer with Christian Formation - with youth group or with Godly Play. Maybe you want to sing in the choir. Maybe you would be interested in getting a fellowship group started that’s focused on community activism. Or maybe you want to help out with our booth at Fort Collins Pride. I would love to see Plymouth inviting kids and youth onto different boards or ministry teams - letting their voices and perspectives help to lead the future of our church. I would love to see cross-generational relationships and engagement that changes the way we show up for each other and that reminds us how to PLAY together. I would love to see Plymouth be a place of respite and healing for all kinds of people - and right now I think especially of black and indigenous people of color who have been harmed by white supremacy, and I think of LGBTQIA+ people who have experienced anything but love from the Church. I would love to see us, living out of wholeness and well-rested spirits, bringing healing and wholeness to the world around us.
“Not to a Congregation of the Sinless”
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning, Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
June 11, 2023
Who does Jesus eat with, and why? An observant first-century Jew should be eating only at a kosher table with people who are socially acceptable and who are not ritually impure. And yet we know who Jesus hung out with. It wasn’t the well-to-do or the religious establishment, and it certainly wasn’t the Roman imperial occupiers of the Jewish homeland.
The gospel writer tells us that Jesus is under fire for sharing the table with sinners and tax collectors. It’s important to know that tax collectors were not simply IRS agents who were doing the work of the federal government in getting everyone to pay their fair share of the tax burden. Instead, tax collectors in this case were Jews who made their money by collaborating with the Roman occupiers. That isn’t a good start, but it gets better: they essentially extorted money from people on the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder, handing over a portion of the money they collected and keeping some of it for themselves. They were despised by most of those under Roman occupation.
The other category is “sinners.” Temple Judaism in the first century was centered around purity codes that had paths of practice to cleanse one of sin and become ritually clean, and you can read about them in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers.
But don’t all of us commit sin? Don’t we miss the mark as we try to live good and worthy lives? Things that push our relationship with God out of kilter? Of course we do! In our membership covenant response we say, “We warmly welcome you not to a congregation of the sinless, but to a living community of faith that seeks together to find new ways of being in relationship with God and enacting God’s intention for the wholeness of humankind.”
When was the last time you sat down and really considered how you yourself and we together as a church were finding “new ways of being in relationship with God and enacting God’s intention for the wholeness of humankind?” Later in this sermon, I’m going to pose three questions about that, along with an invitation to do some wrestling.
I have a hunch that many of us think that we are pretty set with the second phase of our mission statement that calls us to inviting, transforming, and sending. Do you think you are done with your own transformation as a follower of Jesus? Have any of us attained full enlightenment?
We don’t talk very much about our own spiritual transformation at Plymouth, and I think perhaps we need to work a bit more on our growth and (to use a very old-fashioned word) discipleship. A disciple is nothing more than a student following a master, and we follow Jesus. If we don’t work together on our spiritual lives, where else is that going to happen?
St. John Chrysostom, a bishop of the fourth century said, “The church is a hospital, not a courtroom, for souls. She does not condemn on behalf of sins, but grants remission of sins.” Think about that hospital metaphor in light of what Jesus said: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” I’m going to make a bold assumption in saying that there is no one here who is entirely well or whole. We all need healing and growth. We all need a teacher and a physician. And we need a community to help us along the way.
As I was writing this week, I became curious about what other Christians might see as marks of discipleship or learning. If you want to see a diversity of opinion, try googling “key marks of discipleship” and see what it yields. It wasn’t terribly useful for our purposes, since they all came from organizations whose theology we would be unlikely to support.
But that doesn’t mean that we can’t or shouldn’t have ideas about ways that we can grow in our relationship with God. And as those who try to follow Christ, the best source seems to be Jesus himself. In the text this morning, Jesus quotes the prophet Hosea, instructing his disciples to “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire compassion, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” The great Jesus scholar Marcus Borg, Plymouth’s first Visiting Scholar, said that Jesus deliberately replaced the centrality of purity as a key aspect of religious practice with compassion, and I think this is a clear example of that. God doesn’t need burnt offerings of doves or sheep; God’s deepest desire for us is to act compassionately toward one another.
Living with compassion is harder than it sounds. It implies that we need to get out of our individualistic and even familial mindset and be open to share the suffering of others. Compassion is costly…it isn’t free, and it isn’t easy. We have to be willing to sacrifice some part of our well-being in order to help others. And that is countercultural in our society.
Many of Jesus’ clearest (and hardest) teachings are enumerated in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s gospel, so isn’t that a logical place to look for clues about what we need to learn as disciples?
The Beatitudes hold up as blessed those who are poor in spirit, who mourn, the meek, those who hunger for justice, who show compassion, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those persecuted for the sake of justice, and those who are rejected on account of following Jesus.
As disciples, some of us here today fall into one or more of those categories. I know some of you who are mourning, others who are meek, and some who hunger for justice. So, what about the rest of us? If a particular beatitude doesn’t apply to us, perhaps we are meant to be a support and a blessing to those Jesus lists. We can support the peacemakers, lift up the poor in spirit, and show compassion.
When the crowd asks Jesus how they should pray, he tells them not to wail aloud like the hypocrites who pray to be seen by others, instead he offers them the prayer we offer each Sunday, the Lord’s Prayer. Have you even noticed that in the Lord’s Prayer we pray twice for the inbreaking of the realm of God? And that it speaks about God’s abundance and debt forgiveness?
Perhaps the first question we should ask ourselves as disciples, learners is Who am I in relation to God?
Jesus keeps on going in his sermon, encouraging his followers (us) to be even more concerned for justice and righteousness than others, to let go of anger, to avoid retaliation by turning the other cheek, to go the second mile, and to give to anyone who begs from you. He tells us not just to love the folks who already love you, but to love even our enemies.
A second question for us as learners seems to emerge: Who am I in relation to others? Think not just about your own family, but about your church, community, nation, and world. Our society is amazingly self-absorbed, which is fueled by consumer advertising. Consider the neighbors that surround you, near and far, and whether those relationships are expanding or contracting.
You may not realize it, but Jesus has a lot to say to us about abundance and wealth and how we use what is entrusted to us. He encourages us to be generous in our giving, but not to be showy about it. He tells us not to worry so much about our possessions or what we will eat or drink or wear. God provides in abundance and Jesus says, “strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” Jesus is clear that people like us cannot serve two masters: God and wealth. And he shares some uncommon wisdom with us, telling us not to store up treasures on earth. He tells us that where our treasure is, it is there that our hearts will be.
So, a third question arises for us as we move toward transforming our lives: Who am I in relation to abundance and wealth? Jesus says more about money than he does about love. Money is an important tool entrusted to us to help extend the realm or kingdom of God. How much time do you spend serving wealth?
So, those three questions are:
• Who am I in relation to God?
• Who am I in relation to others?
• Who am I in relation to abundance and wealth?
I think each one of us has a lot to learn on this lifelong journey of transformation. Part of what the church offers that no other institution can is that we get to wrestle with the tough stuff together. We are on the journey together. None of us gets it all right, but I think God appreciates our wrestling. May the path of discipleship be a blessing for you!
© 2023 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
Organizing Around Joy
Isaiah 35.1,3-10 and Matthew 11.1-6
December 11, 2022; Third Sunday in Advent
Plymouth Congregational, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
1The desert and the dry land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom like the crocus. … 3Strengthen the weak hands, and support the unsteady knees. 4Say to those who are panicking: "Be strong! Don't fear! Here's your God, coming with [requital, recompence, redemption]; with divine [justice and restoration] God will come to save you." 5Then the eyes of the blind will be opened, and the ears of the deaf will be cleared. 6Then the lame will leap like the deer, and the tongue of the speechless will sing. Waters will spring up in the desert, and streams in the wilderness. 7The burning sand will become a pool, and the thirsty ground, fountains of water. … 8A highway will be there. It will be called The Holy Way. The unclean won't travel on it, but it will be for those walking on that way. Even fools won't get lost on it; 9no lion will be there, and no predator will go up on it. None of these will be there; only the redeemed will walk on it. 10The LORD's ransomed ones will return and enter Zion with singing, with everlasting joy upon their heads. Happiness and joy will overwhelm them; grief and groaning will flee away. - Bible, Common English. CEB Common English Bible with Apocrypha - eBook [ePub] (Kindle Locations 27681-27706).
1When Jesus finished teaching his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in their cities. 2Now when John heard in prison about the things the Christ, [the Messiah, the Human One] was doing, he sent word by his disciples to Jesus, asking, 3"Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?" 4Jesus responded, "Go, report to John what you hear and see. 5Those who were blind are able to see. Those who were crippled are walking. People with skin diseases are cleansed. Those who were deaf now hear. Those who were dead are raised up. The poor have good news proclaimed to them. 6 Happy are those who don't stumble and fall because of me." - Bible, Common English. CEB Common English Bible with Apocrypha - eBook [ePub] (Kindle Locations 38242-38249).
In the ancient traditions of Advent today is “Gaudete Sunday.” Gaudete, the Latin word meaning “Rejoice!” This is the Sunday of rejoicing! Rejoicing even when we see so many shadows of sadness and grief in our world. We light the candle of Joy in the face of sadness and grief. Not because we are denying the sadness and grief, but because we know a bigger story. We know this story because of the testimonies of our ancestors in faith, like the prophet, Isaiah, because of the life and love of our pioneer and perfecter of faith, Jesus of Nazareth.
Isaiah and Jesus knew the bigger, resilient story of the Holy ONE’s presence and work in the world. With his people Isaiah was facing a world going up in flames as the Babylonians attacked and conquered neighboring countries, threatened Israel, eventually conquering it as well. The chapter preceding the joyful one we just heard together is dire, full of doom. It reminds me what we hear from climate change activists. Dire and immediate warnings…. and necessarily so! May we listen and act accordingly! It reminds me of what we hear and see from Ukraine and other war-ravaged nations in our world community. The devastations that we human beings wreak upon one another. May we listen and respond compassion! I am also reminded of the first stanza of the poem that is the centerpiece of our Advent devotional for this third week. It is Maya Angelou’s poem, “Just Like Job.”
My Lord, my Lord,
Long have I cried out to Thee
In the heat of the sun,
The cool of the moon,
My screams searched the heavens for Thee.
When my blanket was nothing but dew,
Rags and bones
Were all I owned,
I chanted Your name
Just like Job.[i]
In the face of all this grief and sadness and destruction, hearing and living the promises of God from the prophet in Isaiah is a stronghold and refuge. “Be strong! Don't fear! Here's your God, coming with [requital, recompense, and redemption]…” Healing will happen, the blind will see, the lame walk, the earth will be healed with streams of living water and the desert will bloom! There is a highway called the Holy Way to walk towards healing, a way to walk in healing. Even fools will see the way! Happiness and joy will overwhelm; grief and groaning will flee away.”
We also take heart from Jesus’ words in Matthew chapter 11, echoing the ancient prophets, Isaiah and Malachi. John the Baptizer sends him a probing question from the depths for a prison cell. “Are you really the One sent from God? “Jesus says to John’s disciples who are the messengers of the question, “Go, report to John what you hear and see.” (Notice, not who you think I am or might be, but what do you see happening in the world!) “Those who were blind are able to see. Those who were crippled are walking. People with skin diseases are cleansed. Those who were deaf now hear. Those who were dead are raised up. The poor have good news proclaimed to them.” Trust what you see and hear. Happy are those, says Jesus, who do not stumble because they second guess what they are seeing and hearing. They trust.
Jesus reminds John that dire times have been upon God’s people before, yet God brings a resilient cycle of redemption and renewal. God’s kin-dom is now and in coming and will continue to come! There is joy even in the midst of dire times. Look for it! Recognize it! Rejoice! God’s work in the world is full of joy and it is resilient. The Merriam Webster dictionary tells us that resilience is: “The ability to become strong, healthy, or successful again after something bad happens. The ability of something to return to its original shape after it has been pulled, stretched, bent, etc. An ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change.” Justice activist, Corina Fadel speaks about resilience like this: “The way water knows just how to flow, not force itself around a river rock; then surely I can stretch myself in the shape my own path is asking of me.”[ii]
These reflections on resilience spark in me in a quiet, confident joy as I consider them with the words of Isaiah and Jesus. When bad things happen, when life goes awry, when we are faced with sadness and grief, we push back and say, “No!” “No, life! You are not doing this to me! How can I escape? How can I make this go away? I must resist!” We hurt. We are angry! Normal reactions to abnormal situations. We can, we must, acknowledge the sadness and grief before we can move further. And in the pain, the Holy invites us to sit listening for God. Waiting is not easy. But neither is resisting and refusing to listen. We wait for God, as we are waiting in this dark time of year for longer days to return. I have found that in the waiting and listening something new begins to happen, something news comes slowly, but surely. Living water bubbles up from the dry places of my soul. I learn to see again, to walk again in confidence with God. To find that highway in the desert that even fools cannot miss. And my heart can begin again to organize itself around joy.
The pain might still be there…. but it is now living alongside new life, new growth. When we stay in resistance to the pain, I am stuck in a soul-sucking quagmire. When we stop struggling against it, feel it, acknowledge it, listen quietly to it and to Spirit, then we can see and hear that the desert blooms again, there is new life even in the face of death and joy comes in the morning. Our soul can flow in and around the pain like water over river rocks. We can stretch ourselves with God’s love and compassion into the shape that our paths are asking us to take. Joy comes. Not an easy happiness that depends on circumstances, but joy that runs deep at a soul level.
Maya Angelou knows this cycle of resilience. Quoting her poem again, “Just Like Job,” she sings with the psalmists of old,
O Lord, come to Your child.
O Lord, forget me not.
You said to lean on Your arm...
The wonderful word of the Son of God. [iii]
Joy co-exists with sorrow, writes the late priest, teacher and soul-work author, Henri Nouwen, “because it is the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing - sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death — can take that love away.” [iv] That can be a tough to trust, can’t it? The world does not often run on unconditional anything, much less love. Everything has a price, doesn’t it?
Yet this is the miracle love of Christmas. God’s unconditional love comes in the baby, the Christ Child, God-with-us in the flesh in the world. God’s love is vulnerable. It invites our love. It grows into the powerful message and model of Jesus who lived God’s love even unto death and beyond.
On the path of Advent, we wait and listen in these darkened times. We wait for the time when we celebrate once again the resilience of God’s love made human. We wait for the light to break through in Hope, Peace and now, today, in joy. Joy, that deep well-spring of Love that fuels the realm of God on earth. Joy that comes in the face of, co-exists with, sadness, pain, and grief. Joy is what we can organize our hearts and minds and lives around as we make our way in the world walking Holy highways of justice-seeking, of kindness, of compassion to make God’s realm visible wherever we might be.
With Maya Angelou, let us cry out to the Holy One, saying,
….I’m stepping out on Your word.
I’m stepping out on Your word.
Into the alleys
Into the byways
Into the streets [poem here]
Friends of God gathered here this morning … let us step out on God’s word this day, Joy!
©The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, 2022 and beyond. May be reprinted only with permission.
[i] Maya Angelou, The Complete Poetry, (Random House, New York NY: 2015, 168.) Read poem here.
[ii] adrienne maree brown, Emergent Strategy, Shaping Change, Changing Worlds, (AK Press: Chico, CA, 2017, 123.)
[iii] Angelou, 168-169.
[v] Angelou, 169.
The Land of And…
A sermon related to Matthew 14:13-23
The inward contemplative life must be integrated with the outer life of expression and service (and vice versa).
When Jesus heard about John, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself. When the crowds learned this, they followed him on foot from the cities. 14 When Jesus arrived and saw a large crowd, he had compassion for them and healed those who were sick. 15 That evening his disciples came and said to him, “This is an isolated place and it’s getting late. Send the crowds away so they can go into the villages and buy food for themselves.”
16 But Jesus said to them, “There’s no need to send them away. You give them something to eat.”17 They replied, “We have nothing here except five loaves of bread and two fish.”
18 He said, “Bring them here to me.” 19 He ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. He took the five loaves of bread and the two fish, looked up to heaven, blessed them and broke the loaves apart and gave them to his disciples. Then the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20 Everyone ate until they were full, and they filled twelve baskets with the leftovers. 21 About five thousand men plus women and children had eaten.
22 Right then, Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go ahead to the other side of the lake while he dismissed the crowds. 23 When he sent them away, he went up onto a mountain by himself to pray. Evening came and he was alone.
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
Some of you know the elder Roman Catholic Priest Father Richard Rohr who was the founder and driving force in establishing the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He once offered this illustration……
When people ask me which is the more important, action or contemplation, I know it is an impossible question to answer because they are eternally united in one embrace, two sides of one coin. So I say that action is not the important word, nor is contemplation; and is the important word!
I’ve read Father Richard Rohr’s books in past years and he is an increasingly important teacher for me, particularly as an articulate voice and presence for evolving Christianity, for the kind of Christianity that takes the best from our tradition and moves it forward with articulation and depth that is accessible. Like Father Rohr, I don’t find the essence of Christianity problematic, I find that too often our way of understanding it over the centuries has been problematic and immature. Our faith has too often been captured by the Empire and used for its purposes. Conveniently for the Empire, this capture psycho-spiritually involves the ego and its fondness for splitting things into two and confirming its bias. The ego thrives on either/or; my way or the highway, I’m in and you are out, heaven or hell. Taken as a whole, and in its highest and deepest teaching, the Gospel and our spiritual lives are meant for more. The Realm of God, of which Jesus spoke so often, is a big enough circle, a wide enough vision to include all, even paradox. In short, the Realm of God could also be called the Land of And.
Father Rohr quotes Charles Péguy (1873–1914), French poet and essayist, who wrote with great insight that “everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics.” And Rohr says that everything new and creative in this world puts together things that don’t look like they go together at all, but always have been connected at a deeper level. Spirituality’s goal is to get people to that deeper level where the Divine can hold contradictions and paradox. (Some call this place the unified field or nondual reality or wisdom.)
This creative work of living in the Land of And is the creative work of a lifetime and a sign of maturing faith and psychology. (It’s harder when we are younger.)
We could spend a long time exploring all those seemingly opposing poles of life in which we move, like continuity and change, structure and flow, accountability and mercy, planned and emergent, and countless others. Today, I invite us to travel in ‘the Land of And’ by focusing on the two important poles initially mentioned: action and contemplation.
Did you notice the integration of these two in our Scripture story today?
Just below the plot, just below the surface, Jesus is in the dance of action and contemplation. He seeks solitude and prayer both before and after his communal feeding of the 5000. Just before our story, Jesus hears of John the Baptist’s cruel execution at the hand of Herod, and he seeks solitude. And after his action with the crowds, showing them compassion and healing, offering them food, he seeks solitude and prayer time once more. This is a deep pattern, contemplation and action and then contemplation again and so on, each feeding and informing the other.
You might say that Moses was in this cycle on Mount Sinai, first having a mystical experience of the burning bush and having that lead to his actions for liberation of the people. It’s as if the bush burned before him, then in him, and then through him in action in the world.
You might come to the Land of And from either side of this or any polarity. You might be a person of action like Simone Weil, an activist who fought against totalitarianism and worked for the French Resistance based in England during World War II. What you might not know is that in the 1930’s as a young activist, her atheist, communist sympathies soured and it was no longer religion that she considered the opiate of the people, but revolution. A mystical experience in the Church while on a visit to Assisi changed her life and the framework and fuel of her activism. She realized that activism without a spiritual framework, a framework capable of getting beyond the ego, was deeply limited and even dangerous. Said Weil, “God is not present, even if we invoke God, where the afflicted are merely regarded as an occasion for doing good.” Weil began in action and found her way to the inclusion and integration of contemplation, of inward spiritual practice, which in turn altered and inspired her continued activism. She found her way to the Land of And where action and contemplation were one dance, indispensable and interdependent elements.
Others have journeyed the other direction from contemplation to action. Saint Oscar Romero might be one example of this. The quiet studious priest earned his doctorate after ordination and then eventually served in parishes and as a church official in various capacities including running a conservative Catholic publication. He certainly got things done in his early ministry, yet was considered a conventional and conservative choice years later when he was selected as Archbishop of San Salvador, selected as someone to preserve the status quo. It was Saint Oscar’s contemplation of the assassinated body of his activist friend and fellow priest, Rutilio Grande, that transformed Romero, transformed him into a prophet of action who led actions of liberation for the people, actions borne of compassion that came out of his wrestling in prayer, his inner spiritual contemplation.
The invitation to the Land of And begins when we draw the circle wide, including both energies. As simple as the inbreath and the outbreath, we come back to the necessity of each and their interdependence. Any energy pole can polarize, distorting the other side and suffering the consequences of focusing too much on one side. In most congregations like this one, to oversimplify, there will be fans of action and of contemplation, people who lean one way or the other.
Let’s do a quick polarity map of those.
A polarity map is a way of understanding where we are in relation to any given poles and how the two can be integrated. Each pole can have an upside and a downside. When we are really preferring one pole, we tend to be suspicious of its interdependent pole, judgmental about the downside of that interdependent pole. If you are preferring action, you might be suspicious of those who talk about prayer or meditation or mysticism. What are your concerns? (I’m one of these people. I have this voice.) Pie in the sky, all talk no action, hypocrisy, insulated, not real. Breaking through this polarization involves trying to see the other pole’s upside and your preferred pole’s downside. So, let’s say we guarantee that the action pole will be served, what could one gain by also serving contemplation? Energy, inspiration, insight for better actions, care for the self and inner life, integrity of spirit when engaging action, etc.
Reverse it. If you prefer the inner life, the contemplative life of Spirit, you may have been suspicious of those always in action. What are your concerns? Burn out, reactivity, not strategic, act in inconsistent manner (ie not peaceful peace marchers), etc. But what could be the gain in adding action to one’s contemplation? Integrity of doing what you say you value, new learning from engagement, connection to others, grounding in the tangible world.
Are we, like Jesus in the story we heard this morning, involved with self-awareness, with checking our egos and supporting our souls with a regular life of connecting with Spirit through prayer and/or yoga and/or other spiritual disciplines like Lectio Divina, poetry, or journaling, or walking the labrynth, or participating in vital worship? Are we, like Jesus, then filled with enough courage and compassion to answer the call to act, to incarnate the Spirit into acts of service and healing and justice-making, to put our bodies and checkbooks and time into faithful actions for the coming more fully of heaven to earth?
In a distracted world of the 24-hour news cycle, of Facebook and emails, of constant cable news crawlers and tweets, my friends we are challenged to keep in touch with God, with the deep still point of the circle.
And, in the midst of a world of such constant noise and so many opportunities to live only in a chosen private manufactured reality, we are challenged to connect in community, and to act in wise, effective, and meaningful ways that are grounded in the embodied reality of earth and guided by the vision of all God’s people and all Creation in a just relationship.
If we are to see the possibility and then miraculously deliver such abundance satisfying the hunger of body and soul as Jesus in feeding the 5000, we will have to imitate Jesus in the cycle and the integration of action AND contemplation.
It’s worth remembering that both King and Gandhi considered their movements spiritual movements, fueled by prayers of song and speech. Gandhi once said, "I have so much to accomplish today that I must meditate for two hours instead of one." That’s a human being living in the land of And.
Let us go and do likewise. AMEN
“Hidden in Plain Sight”
Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
31[Jesus] told another parable to them: "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and planted in his field. 32 It's the smallest of all seeds. But when it's grown, it's the largest of all vegetable plants. It becomes a tree so that the birds in the sky come and nest in its branches."
33He told them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like yeast, which a woman took and hid in a bushel of wheat flour until the yeast had worked its way through all the dough."
34Jesus said all these things to the crowds in parables, and he spoke to them only in parables. 35This was to fulfill what the prophet spoke: I'll speak in parables; I'll declare what has been hidden since the beginning of the world.
CEB Common English Bible with Apocrypha - eBook [ePub] (Kindle Locations 38380-38389). Common English Bible. Kindle Edition.
Do you remember the great fun, especially on a summer’s evening, of playing “Hide and Seek?” The adrenaline rush of finding just the right hiding place and then trying to stay quiet enough so as not to be found? The suspense of stealthily seeking? The squeals of laughter when you were found and then racing the seeker back to home base? So much fun! Think about all the stories you’ve read or seen on the big of little screen about finding hidden treasure. Or even the love of research or discovery as an adult in whatever field you might be in….discovering something new in science, or a new formula as a mathematician, or a new way of constructing an environmental savvy building as an engineer or architect, or new ways of helping a social justice situation, a new client or customer to help, new plot twists as a writer or word pictures as a poet, a new chord progression as a musician. At times when we finally discover what we are looking for, we marvel….well, that was there all along…hidden in plain sight! We just had to look from a different angle, perspective, turn over one more stone – metaphorically or literally.
Parables are wisdom hidden in plain sight by using comparison, setting two unlike things side by side. Jesus used parables all the time to teach the crowds and his disciples. He was steeped in the Hebrew scripture use of mashal, enigmatic language whose meaning was not immediately apparent. It was riddle-like. Language “intended to tease the mind into insight rather than communicate a simple idea by means of an illustration.”[i] The mashal of Hebrew scriptures and the parables of Jesus were both meant to conceal and reveal the wisdom and the activity of God.
Now why do Jesus, and the prophets before him, speak to us in this concealing/revealing kind of way? Why don’t you just say what you mean, Jesus? I think wise ones down through the centuries and through all traditions knew that riddles, the odd comparisons of parables, language that teased the mind and heart slow us down as humans. We need to listen as human beings, not just as human doings. We can get so busy accomplishing, building, making, doing whatever needs to be done that we forget to slow down and listen. A well told parable, story, riddle, poetic image slows us down. We must take time to contemplate, to consider the meanings in our heads and let the wisdom sink into our hearts. This is the sacred activity, activity of the Holy, of God. The wisdom of the Divine is not taught so much as experienced.
Jesus tells the crowds, “The kingdom of heaven, God’s activity in the world, is like a tiny mustard seed planted in the soil. Something hidden happens there in the darkness of the soil. And the seed begins to grow. The seed grows into the largest of plants…as large as a tree and it is shelter for many living creatures.” What happens to that seed hidden in the dark? We know that inside the seed there is the possibility of new life – an embryo plant. With the right amount of water, the seed splits open and begins to grow a root to gather more water and then a sprout to break the surface of the soil so that it can get sunlight and begin the process of photosynthesis. This happens so often, is so much a part of life around us, that we don’t stop to be amazed. But it is amazing! And hidden as it is, seed growth is a small pattern for the holy work of creation. Nothing would survive on earth without this pattern. It is a pattern we can emulate in our faith journey.
And Jesus tells us, “The kingdom of heaven, God’s activity in the world, is like yeast hidden in flour dough that causes the dough to grow, to double, triple in size, until it can feed more people than we might have ever imagined.” In fact, hidden in Jesus’s parable is an incredible measure, three measures of flour, translated into a bushel in the Common English Bible. That’s a lot of bread…more than one might make in your kitchen just for fun. Jesus wants us to know that God’s activity can so small like yeast, yet it activates so much! We know that yeast is a single-celled microorganism. It is millions of years old. It reproduces by budding, a new cell growing on the first cell and so on and so forth. When we add it to flour and other bread ingredients it starts to feed on the sugars in the ingredients creating the rising action. This action hidden, in bread making, is another small pattern of the holy work of creation. It is a pattern we can emulate in our faith journey.
If the kingdom of heaven, the activity of God, is like a mustard seed or like yeast, then God’s activity in the world is seemingly small and concealed. Yet, mysteriously, through the energy of God’s love, God’s hidden activity grows exponentially and is revealed as powerfully nourishing. Wow! I find this pattern fascinating. It reminds me of fractals, never-ending patterns found repeating in creation. Examples of fractals are the spiral patterns in our fingertips that show up in the galaxies, patterns in ferns that are in tree branches, patterns in river deltas that are in the very structures of our lungs. A fractal is pattern in the micro that is reflected in the macro and vice versa. Thinking metaphorically, each human being made in the image of God would be a fractal of the Holy One. We are not God, but we hold the patterns of God within us. We need to pay attention!
American author, social activist, philosopher, and feminist, Grace Lee Boggs, wrote, “Transform yourself to transform the world.”[ii] This is thinking of change at the fractal level, at a seed level, at the level of yeast. I know that in this faith community we want to transform the world with and through God’s love and justice. Our first step must be allowing our own transformation through God’s love and justice. Are we allowing the nurturing presence of God into our own hearts and souls, as a seed allows in water and sunlight to grow and mature into the plant it is meant to be? Are we allowing the yeast of God’s Spirit to grow within our lives, inspiring exponential growth that keeps us nourished as we keep on keeping on for justice? Just as we slow down to hear parables, we must slow ourselves to attend to the slow work of God inside of us, transforming our fear and greed and false ego and self-esteem that is too low or too high. The Holy One will bring transformation in unexpected ways, if we slow down and pay attention through prayer, spiritual practice, study, service, faithful fellowship.
It’s a spiral process for as we slow down to attend to our own change, we are also a part of systemic change. Automatically, without any organizing or activism – though those activities have their place. Our transformation influences and catalyzes systemic change without us even knowing. adrienne maree brown writes, “As we speak of systemic change, we need to be fractal. Fractals – a way to speak of the patterns we see – move from the micro to the macro.”[iii]
How do we work in community, in this faith community, like fractal patterns of God, like the activity of seeds or yeast? Hmmmm…..I don’t have an analytical answer for that. However, I see the patterns. You all volunteer for ministries in our community, from FFH to children’s Sunday school, to youth group, to making cookies and helping to serve them after a memorial service, to being deacons and trustees, to working with immigrants and welcoming low income and international students back to campus with a housewarming give away, to praying for one another. I could go on and on about all the patterns of God’s activity in the world that I see hidden then revealed within our community. It’s happening! And so, I must assume that the transformations of God’s activity in your lives is happening as well. Hidden, precious, intimate, and yet revealed in your faith and faith works. Keep on keeping on!
One more place, one more reveal, I have wondered about is this… a Beloved Community Covenant. Over the years, we have declared through UCC process, through study, discussion, and prayer. Then finally through a vote that we are a Peace with Justice congregation, an Open and Affirming congregation and an Immigrant Welcoming congregation. We strive to live into these declarations. Now the UCC doesn’t have an official process for being a Beloved Community Congregation. But there are UCC churches that have Community Covenants in which they have through discussion, study, prayer, and discernment laid out a covenant saying, “This is how we will relate to one another through God’s love and justice.” Your staff has an official covenant that we remind ourselves of from time to time. In our staff relationships we will 1.) Speak to a colleague and not about, in the case of conflict. 2.) Once a decision is made in staff meeting, we stand shoulder to shoulder in upholding it. 3.) Always assume the best of our colleagues in their intentions and actions.
What if we took to heart that as a faith community, we are a fractal, a pattern of the greater world? We know the stresses and conflicts, the divisiveness of our culture, our world. If the micro can mirror and transform the macro, what if we extended the covenant we make in membership into a Beloved Community Covenant as a pathway to greater transformation within us and within our wider world? What if in taking this to heart, we had a stated Beloved Community Covenant, created through prayer, study, discussion, and consensus, that we refer to when tough times happen and there are disagreements in discernment about our way forward as church? What if we could always go back to this covenant that has come out of the transforming hearts, minds, and lives of beloved individuals, of you? What if this Beloved Community Covenant reminded us that we hold the seeds, the fractals, the microcosm of God’s love and justice within us to be in relationship with one another? How might we be transformed as a faith community and be greater transforming activity in God’s wider world? What might happen if we truly live out the kingdom of heaven, the activity of God, the good news of the parables Jesus proclaimed? What if … we succeed in revealing that God’s Beloved Community is here among us and within us and active in the world? What if?
Amen and amen.
©The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson, 2022 and beyond. May be reprinted only with permission.
[i] Douglas R.A. Hare, Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching: Matthew, (Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY: 2009, 147.)
[ii] adrienne maree brown, Emergent Strategy, Shaping Change, Changing Worlds, (AK Press, Chico, CA: 2017, 53.)
[iii] Ibid., 59.
Matthew 13.1-9 (and 18-23)
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
If you are like me and Jane Anne, you may have expanded your springtime gardening experiments during the lockdown. What better time to germinate some vegetable seeds, nurture them along as they sprout, weed out the strongest ones, mix in some well-seasoned compost to the soil, put in some drip irrigation, and transplant them outside and hope that neither the hail nor the rabbits kill them off. So, if I were writing a parable, I’d use a setting like that, because it’s commonplace, and that is what Jesus used: everyday settings.
Parables are a particularly meaty form of teaching that Jesus employed throughout his ministry, and they are recorded primarily in the synoptic gospels — the three accounts in our Bible that see things through a similar lens, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The Gospel of Thomas, outside our canon, is also packed with parables. Our word “parable” takes two Greek words, para (next to) and ballo (to throw) and combines them to describe a literary tool that throws one thing down next to another. You and I know that this is not essentially a story about sowing seeds…Jesus tosses out metaphors in order to challenge and reveal a truth in a memorable, more engaging, and less obvious way.
Jesus used parables to shake up his hearers, revealing their assumptions, often turning them upside down. For instance, his audience would know that the only good Samaritan is a dead Samaritan…so what could a Good Samaritan show us?
Jesus’ parables also need to be understood as spoken, not written. So, what we have in the gospels is a condensation of a good, long yarn that Jesus may have spent 30 or 40 minutes developing, and the compilers of the gospels gave us their distillation. But imagine yourself being part of the crowd that gathered to hear Jesus on the beach. Don’t you imagine that there would be some dialogue among the hearers and Jesus? Can’t you imagine someone shouting out, “Are you saying that we are the seed or the sower?” or “Is he saying that we are rocky soil?” or to one another, “Crikey, don’t you just wish he’d make his point and move on?” It would probably look more like a scene from Monty Python’s “The Life of Brian” than anything else. So, there is some back-and-forth, some puzzling, engagement, and stimulation of their imaginations.
John Dominic Crossan, one of Plymouth’s past visiting scholars, has written more incisively than any other New Testament scholar about the function of parables. He sees them as fulfilling a different role than stories, which provide a narrative or even a myth that explains something, like the Genesis story we heard last month about three visitors who are offered hospitality by Abraham and Sarah. What Jesus spins for his hearers is akin to a riddle or an example or a challenge, often concerning the kingdom of God.
The Parable of the Sower is in all three synoptic gospels, and the earliest is Mark’s gospel. And here is the odd thing: in all three gospels, a few verses after the parable itself, the writer of Mark’s gospel gives an explanation of the parable. (You just never do that! It’s like explaining the punchline of a joke, which means the joke failed. You can hash it out orally with someone, but the presenter never says, “Here’s what the parable really means.” Jesus would not have done that. It is as if a Zen master offered a koan —a parabolic riddle — to a pupil and then explained what the answer was…it means the student doesn’t learn by struggling with it. That is what we are meant to do with parables.) The Parable of the Sower also occurs in the Gospel of Thomas without “explaining the punchline,” which leads some scholars to think that Thomas provides the earliest copy of what Jesus said.
Let’s look at the text itself. This is the part where you have to really engage…I’m not giving it away, so you might even take down a note or two to ponder. This parable is a long sequence of metaphors. Jesus throws down a word, but alongside it, you, the hearer, have to fill in the blank for each metaphor.
The first character in the story is the sower herself. She sets out to broadcast seed and has some failures and some stellar successes? Are you the sower? Is Jesus the sower? Is God the sower? The parable turns out differently as you cast the role differently, and it’s fun to play with it that way.
What do you think Jesus meant seed to represent? Is it his own ministry? Is it the law and the prophets of Judaism? Is it the alternative commonwealth that he proclaimed?? Is it holy wisdom?
The next metaphor is the birds, who are swooping in to satisfy their hunger by snatching some of the fallen seed that has fallen from the sower’s bag onto the path. What do to the birds represent? Are they the Pharisees who Jesus always seems to tussle with? The Temple authorities? Satan? The occupying Romans?
The third metaphor is rocky soil, onto which the seed falls and springs up quickly, only to wither and perish in the heat of the sun. Is the rocky soil the tradition of pro forma religious observance that looks good from the outside, but doesn’t produce a resilient faith? A faith journey starts out strong but shallow and isn’t sustainable over the long haul? Is the rocky soil the mind and heart of someone who is a bit shallow?
The fourth metaphor is the thorns, and the seed that falls among them is choked by them as they grow, kind of like bindweed does here in Fort Collins. Are the thorns like the things that distract us from spending time studying our faith and developing spiritual practices? Perhaps for you the thorns are the priorities in your life that may need some realignment…priorities that occupy your mental and spiritual space — whether it’s work or worry or acquiring material things or addiction — that block out your ability to really commit yourself fully to God’s service.
And the final metaphor is the good soil: the kind that has had good, rich compost mixed into it, that is aerated and well-watered. It’s ready to receive the seed and provide an environment that will not only allow itself to flourish, but to provide a huge yield of new seed for future generations of the plant. So, what is the good soil? Is it the life of a person who lives faithfully? Is it a community that nurtures and nourishes people in their faith? Is it the world itself, ready to provide all we need, if only we can learn to be good stewards and share resources?
Imagine what it would be like to create a parable for the middle of the year 2020. Perhaps we could see God as the sower and the wisdom of Jesus as the seed.
Perhaps the birds who come and consume the seed is the busyness in our lives. Maybe we ourselves feel as though the pandemic has tested our faith, since we don’t have the physical community to rely on, and the coronavirus birds came along and ate up what we thought was at the core.
Perhaps our faith isn’t as resilient as we would like, and its roots aren’t as deep as we think they should be. Is our sense of scarcity like rocky soil? Do we fixate on the lack of money, influence, health, or ability and let that form our dominant narrative?
I wonder if fear is the thorn bush that holds many of us back: the fear of not being acceptable or accepted, the fear that we aren’t [blank] enough: young, rich, thin, fit, smart, confident…whatever descriptor keeps you hamstrung.
And where do we find good soil? How do we become good soil from which the kingdom of God can rise up? We can add the compost of our faith, which is historically and theologically deep. We can fertilize it with truth, which can be tough to take, but it increases our yield. We can aerate it with time to contemplate and pray, which is so hard to find if you are a young parent or trying to occupy your kids and work from home. And we can water it with love, patience, kindness, and understanding.
We need to bloom where we are planted, and my prayer for you this week is that you will find something that makes your life and your faith flourish and grow.
© 2020 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact email@example.com for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph
July 16, 2017
Plymouth Congregational Church UCC, Fort Collins, Colorado
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
Will you pray with me? God, great gardener of our lives and of this planet, I pray that my words this morning may be nourishment for your soil, for this plot, for this congregation, of your embodied, earthen, earthy people. Amen.
I have been told that the raising of the rafters of this Sanctuary was very much (or pretty much exactly) like a good old-fashioned barn raising also known as a “raising bee.” Ethnically German farmers who emigrated from the Volga region of Russia founded Plymouth. One of our senior members here at Plymouth whose parents helped found the church, Ray Becker, often likes to tell me about the tractors, the excitement, the rooting and planting of community on that day. It was a day when the culturally German farmer immigrants from Russian and their families gathered in a field (then far away from CSU) down the road from the renowned pig farms (yes, the NW corner of Shields and Prospect was a pig farm) for the raising, the cultivating of a new fellowship barn… our church.
This place was built to gather the harvest of the beloved community, just like the barns they were building for each other on the edges of Fort Collins. The rugged and community-minded (not wealthy) Russian-German immigrants saved every penny they had to build it, leveraged noodle making dinners for fundraising, used their own tractors and hands to make this Sanctuary for us to sit, sing in, preach from, and worship God safely within today. Our recent consultant, John Wimberley, was fixated and fascinated by this fact that we built our own church. This is our barn of blessings. This is our storehouse of love. Can you still hear the loud hum of the 1950’s John Deer 94 horsepower tractors and the thick accents, many still speaking German, murmuring, blessing us through the walls? [PAUSE] I can. I do every day as one of your ministers.
Learning the agrarian roots of our congregation and digging in that dirt (getting my hands dirty in that history) has helped me to better understand the deep rootedness of our Scripture passage today and what it can mean for us as we move forward as a congregation in this barn that love built. So taking these agricultural roots seriously, how can we best understand this Matthew 13: 1-9, 18-23 passage on July 16, 2017?
When I first read the Scripture for today, I started out thinking about the soil as different kinds of churches in the metaphor. Meaning that I started thinking about this as if you fall into (join/ attend) a rocky church, a thorny church, a “good soil” church, or a hard path church your outcome for faith formation and life will be different. Initially, that seemed to make some sense. The sort of church community we encounter to help nurture us as we journey together forms the soils of our hearts and our openness to the Divine. I have since decided that this interpretation in 2017 gives all of way too much credit to the power of the institution of the Church, for, as you all know with your busy and full lives, the church is not and cannot be the only soil you encounter. In Jesus’ day and even maybe 60 plus years ago when this building was built, you could self-isolate in that way (existing within the culture of a church institution)—BUT that is not how we live in
2017, is it? Our lives are constant transplanting, blending, fertilizing, realigning, crop rotation soils (plural). We no longer live in a world where the church is our soil identity or sole identity. We all now have many soils that compose our hearts and our identities. We are rooted in many communities.
Now for a fancy seminary word I have been saving for two and a half years: What is the Ecclesiological theology of this passage? Meaning, this makes me ask, if the church isn’t the soil itself anymore, what is the role of the church in this parable for today?
The answer is in the sacred, Sanctuary barn-like structure we sit within. The church is where we gather to raise each other-up and store our harvest of love for the days when the soil is hard out there is thorny out there, is good out there, or is rocky out there.
Church is where we store our tractors, our spades, our weed whackers, trimmers, seeds, hay, combines, international harvesters, our fertilizers (organic and sustainable only of course)… this is Plymouth after all, and our supplies to return to the world for the work of justice, of peace, of growing a more just and perfect world. This is our barn where we learn the way to make growth in all of the complex soils we live within. Amen?
Make no mistake, fellow gardeners in Christ, there is a drought raging, prairie fires burning, insects eating, there is a flood pouring, pesticides of hate proliferating, corporate farming faking out the masses, there is a lot of adverse factors (more than just thorns and hard paths these days) trying their damnedest to harm our fields of love and grace and peace we have been growing and nurturing these many seasons. This barn is where we come to get our supplies to keep the love, keep the faith, and keep the social justice growing from the grassroots of our souls!! This is our supply house in a season of drought or flood or fire. It is a safe place to store all of those seeds and tools, supplies, nutrients to go out and dig in the soils of life with God.
Today, we will not exclusively be or encounter, as Jesus implies, only a hard path soil, a rocky ground soil, a thorny soil, or good soil. As if we had a choice anyway. Even in the course of a single day, we all often find ourselves operating in all of these soils of our lives as Gardeners with God. Let me quickly examine the four categories of spiritual soil Jesus presents and see what they might mean today:
The Hard Path (superficiality): The hard path soils we encounter today are the many times of inauthenticity or just staying on the surface, skimming, losing the meaning of deeper living. Maybe at work or in family life if in the endless small talk that is now required of us, we encounter soils, and places, and people who are the hard path to our spiritual beings—Superficial, surface level, never going deeper. This is just skimming the surface of life consumed by Social Media or work. Surviving for survival sake. How many of us encounter people or places that are to us superficial or inauthentic?
When we meet a hard path, we can come to this barn to pick-up a spiritual sprinkler of patience, vulnerability, and authenticity that can turn the hard path and hard people to soft, fertile mud. We must water/ DRENTCH the hard paths with brutal, loving honesty.
The Rocky Ground (anger and fear): The Rocky Ground is where Jesus says there is not much soil. This is a place of anger and fear. It is a place where we are on edge trying to grow and root as fast as we can because we fear even a slight wind might blow us away. When we garden in places that are rocky ground we root in anger and fear. These are the places and spaces we operate in that come from politics, bad policy, or family systems and conflict that have never been resolved. How many of us know what it feels like to try and farm rocky ground? When we meet a rocky ground, we can run to the barn of Plymouth and pick us a study spade of compassion, truth, and love. We must dig in the rocks, FRIENDS, face the hard stuff, and find the soft soils of love underneath, but first we must face the rocks.
The Thorny Soil (pain and loss): Thorns grow-up a choke out the solid, joyful plants. When we go forth from this place, many of us encounter thistles, weeds, and thorny soil. I know because I am still trying to get a thorn out of my thumb from gardening yesterday. More importantly, this symbolizes pain and loss. This is the soils that we thought was fertile and growing and healthy… until a weed (cancer, divorce, a break-up, a job loss) surprises us and takes away a loved one, we lose a job, and we uncover pain and loss deep within. This is unexpectedly bad soil, but it is soil that this barn called Plymouth is well equipped to help with. When we encounter the thorny soils of life, which are inevitable, we run to the barn of Plymouth and grab our gardening gloves of grace. We all still need to work through our weeds, but at least with the gloves of community support, protection, and gloves of grace and care, we can work towards a whole garden once again. Amen? We must always remember that the gloves of community and grace are here to accompany us even through the thickest thorns and thistle.
The Good Soil (love and joy): And yes, oh yes, the barn of Plymouth is also here for the good soils of weddings and baptisms, communion, and fellowship, learning, pilgrimage, births, birthdays, anniversaries, proposals, job offers, promotions, pay raises, new homes, new leases on life, reunions, celebrations. We run to the barn (this church barn) to support us and celebrate the love and joy of life in the good soils too! This is the seed and the hay, and the tractors we keep in this barn with hope for the next season. We must always return to the barn in celebration.
So, regardless of which soils you find yourself in today or tomorrow, know always that the farm’s storehouse of hope, this barn of love, honesty, authenticity, dirty/gritty
realness, and welcome of formation and forgiveness of Plymouth Congregational Church
of Fort Collins is always here to outfit, refuel, store, and raise you up. This is your barn,
our barn, and your resource space to assess and prepare for the soils I know you face out there.
The Open and Affirming process for Plymouth to become an LGBTQ inclusive church was deeply hard even hurtful for the German-Russian farmers and their families who felt like the UCC left them, and in many ways it did. Many left us because of out gay ministers like me, but I still feel connected with them and the need to reconcile and grow through (NOT DESPITE) but through the nutrients their legacy. Naming this is important as part of the rocky soil, the thorny soil, the good soil that we have to live in. So, today, I
want to honor their barn raising, the hum of the tractors, the voices that built a barn of love, of community, of hope that we have today as a shelter, a storehouse, a resource in the complex soils we all garden within every day of our lives. Here we are always assured that we are gardening with God, with the divine energy that lives within each seed and within our core, and that we have a safe barn to call our spiritual home as we discern what that means in the weeds, the rocks, the hardness, and the rich, deep, thick, messy, earthy goodness of life. Amen.
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph ("just Jake"), Associate Minister, came to Plymouth in 2014 having served in the national setting of the UCC on the board of Justice & Witness Ministries, the Coalition for LGBT Concerns, and the Chairperson of the Council for Youth and Young Adult Ministries (CYYAM). Jake has a passion for ecumenical work and has worked in a wide variety of churches and traditions. Read more about him on our staff page.
Hal preaches on Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30.
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.