The Rev. Dr. Mark Lee
For Plymouth Congregational UCC
Pentecost 1A (lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=142)
The one constant in life is change. One of the constant changes we live is that of saying “Good-bye.” Sometimes it is but for a while. Sometimes it is for good. The good-bye I am leaving you with is somewhere in between, for while I am leaving my professional role with this church and going to serve elsewhere on a 2-year contract, Ivan will keep our ranch here and I’ll come back to visit him regularly. After 2 years, only God knows where I’ll be called next. Change, even good change, is often felt as loss, and as I say vaya con Dios it is with a mix of sorrow and hope.
Today’s texts carry that mix. Paul is signing off his last letter to Corinth, a place he might or might not get back to. And Jesus is trying to boil down years of teaching: A Great Commission that refers to his Great Commandment. Make disciples of every kind of people by teaching them to love one another.
Now when Matthew was writing this, it was a victory lap of sorts. His audience read this about 50 years after the fact, and knew how this Commission was well on its way to being fulfilled. A mix of persecution, catastrophic war, and missionary zeal had spread Christian communities through the core parts of the Roman Empire. Christianity was in Rome, the center of the empire, even before Paul writes his letter to the church there around AD 50. Even as all roads led to Rome, so also did all radiate from there. The merchant and military classes were particularly mobile in the ancient world, believers among them. Outside the empire, tradition credits the Ethiopian eunuch of Acts 9 with taking the gospel into Africa, and the apostle Thomas with founding the church in India that carries his name to this day.
Sharing the the Good News is in Christianity’s DNA. The Bible reminds us “Whenever anyone asks you to speak of your hope, be ready to defend it. Yet do this with respectful humility.” [1 Peter 4:15-16] Sometimes we have not done it well, but at its best it is “one beggar telling another where to find bread.” I well remember being enthralled in college by stories from visiting missionaries, and we would make zealous commitments “To go wherever Christ calls us to go.” (All the while hoping that it wasn’t really the ends of the earth, we wanted electricity and running water!)
I was led into parish ministry. There were obstacles, I got tossed out of my first seminary for being gay. But I then met gay Christians who loved and nurtured and healed me, and later found Iliff in Denver that supported my reality and my call. After working in administration for Unitarian and Episcopal churches, I pastored for 15 years in the Metropolitan Community Church, founding congregations in Ft Collins and Cheyenne.
I learned that following God’s call isn’t an exercise in tea-leaf readings, casting fleeces, or trying to see behind the clouds. I don’t think God’s will is this pinpoint thing that God coyly hides from us and if we can’t figure it out our life is ruined. Rather it was listening to my heart, the advice of people I trust, and prayer to nurture the wide context of my faith. Trying some things and failing or succeeding. God treats us as adults, asks us to use our mind, heart and community to weigh options, giving us choices between good things. For myself, I found that those times I forced myself into something with sharp elbows and big ego did not usually turn out well. Instead I learned that finding God’s will is usually unassuming and straightforward.
My call to Plymouth is a perfect example: after Julie left as Director of Christian Ed to pursue her PhD, I was chatting one day in Hal’s office. I’d been on the Adult Ed Committee and then chair for a couple years. I’d been retired on disability due to my health for a while, and that grated on me terribly; I missed active ministry. I’d been exploring the UCC, taken history and polity courses, and was considering transferring my ordination. So Hal asks me, “How would you like to lead an adult education program like Plymouth’s?” Knowing that Plymouth had a policy against hiring members, I had not considered applying for Julie’s job. So I’m wondering, “Where around here has an education program like Plymouth’s?” … “Is there was a good program at like Windsor or Loveland or Greeley?” “No,” Hal said, “I mean here,” and after I got over my surprise, this new call was off and running.
This has been such a wonderful ministry you have let me do. It has been so satisfying to teach, mange, learn and explore with you. No, we did not figure out the Trinity. We did not solve homelessness. We don’t understand the Bible, or Jesus or God. We have yet to build the world of peace and justice and welcome and inclusion and care and love that we know God keeps leading us towards. But we have worked together towards all these things.
I can’t take credit for it all. I built on a long-standing program built by Alice Clark, Julie Mavity-Maddalena and many adult education committees. More deeply, the roots of the program come from this church’s conviction that Christian Formation goes through our entire lives. It isn’t like you go through Sunday school and get confirmed, get a diploma and are done. You’re barely beginning! This church knows that whether a person is 9 or 90 that there is yet more.
Sometimes it is head-learning, a core of information about what it is to be Christian, good info about the Bible and history and tradition. There are skills to be learned to weigh truth claims, consider evidence, and how to read our sacred texts in context. All that information helps shape beliefs, but we have come to understand that beliefs are only tools. Sometimes we build on them, sometimes we change them, some we even have to unlearn (God as old white man or Bible as science book, anyone?) We realize that there is much more to following Christ than beliefs about him. Beliefs are important, but they are not the goal.
It also takes heart-learning. This is a lifelong quest for me, to bridge head and heart, and you have played an important role in helping me with that. So we let ourselves (oh my, the terrible word my therapist keeps taunting me with) – FEEL. We learn how the Spirit molds our heart, how healthy Christian community keeps us grounded, we dare to let ourselves grieve and enjoy and fear and thrill and love. A lot of this is caught rather than taught, but we create good places for it to be caught – frank discussions, walking labyrinths together, doing lectio divina in small groups, listening so that we “bear one another’s burdens.” “How is it with your soul” is a question we should ask each other more often.
All this would be incomplete however if it just left us with heads crammed full of theology and Bible, and hearts all warm with fellowship and the Spirit if it did not get our hands and feet dirty. Some of the best times have been when we have done an educational series on a topic and then it was manifest in the outer world as action. Social action has to be grounded in clear, fact-driven analysis of a situation. And social action has to be sustained by a core of spiritual heart and practice “to keep on keeping on.” You don’t hear the Black Lives Matter protesters singing Justin Bieber. They sing spirituals. Sweet Honey in the Rock’s Ella’s Song, gives us a window into what is sustainable Christian Formation in our time:
“We who believe in freedom cannot rest
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes
“Until the killing of black men, black mothers' sons
Is as important as the killing of white men, white mothers' sons
“That which touches me most
Is that I had a chance to work with people
Passing on to others that which was passed on to me.”1
“A chance to work with people, passing on to others that which has been passed on to me.” There are so many: you who have taught, you who have led discussions, forum moderators, you who tirelessly chased down political candidates for forums, you who reviewed books that you suggested for classes, you who have set up chairs or handled AV, so many of you who have been parts of boards, ministry teams, committees and projects, the scores of people who make the Visiting Scholar program so great (and btw, we have Eric Elnes on tap for November for an online program). Thank you.
So many of you enjoyed my classes and gave me encouragement – and some of you endured my less than stellar projects and gave me loving feedback (anyone remember Kathleen Ray’s ransom atonement book, “Deceiving the Devil”?). I love to teach, you taught me how to do it better, and having eager learners makes it a joy. Thank you.
And for the love and care and guidance you gave me quite outside my professional role, encouraging my continuing education; supporting my pilgrimages; praying me safely home from Jordan; being patient when my health challenges flared up. Thank you. You have made me welcome in your homes, on retreat at LaForet, over a hundred cups of coffee -- you have let me into your lives and hearts. Thank you.
Now God is leading me to a new ministry – as an interim pastor for a medium sized church a half days’ drive away (I can tell you where in another week or so). I am about equal parts excited and terrified. It will take everything I’ve learned in 30 years of ordained ministry – and all you have poured into my mind and heart these past years will so help that church.
So let me end by remembering todays epistle reading:
“Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell. Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss.” (Maybe now that is a virtual kiss!)
“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” [2 Cor. 13:11-13]
Or as I like to say: God loves you today too. Go live accordingly!
from the album “We Are All… Every One of Us” (© 1983).
Listen to it here:
Remembrance, Invitation & direction
Great Thanksgiving & Epiclesis
We give you thanks, O Great and Loving Creator,
For creating a beautiful yet complicated world,
And placing us in it as stewards and participants.
We are glad that you sent Jesus to show us who you are
And how human life can fulfill your quest for justice and peace.
We thank you for gathering us as your church
Bound together always by the Holy Spirit
And connected today by the ingenuity of human technology.
Now Holy God, spread your Spirit upon these gifts of food and drink
Wherever we may be
that they might be for us the presence of the living Christ,
Making us one across time and space.
Spread your Spirit upon us,
so that like these communion elements
We too might be taken, blessed, broken and shared,
so that others might know the blessings
of living in communion with you and one another.
Through Christ, with Christ and in Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
all glory and honor are yours Almighty God, now and forever.
Words of Institution
Welcome to the table
God who hears the cry of the poor and oppressed:
You have always been with us --
When we were slaves in Egypt,
When in exile in Babylon,
When under the power of empires, despots and tyrants,
When divided into factions and set against each other,
You are a God who rescues.
You came to us in Jesus, who blessed the poor and powerless
Walked the way of the Cross – and invites us to join him.
So we lift our hearts to you in these troubled times:
You know the violence that has oppressed our African American neighbors
For hundreds of years.
Violence that changed legal forms
But still kept them scared and poor and hurt and killed.
Now we have seen with our own eyes
How agents of government casually kill them
And then provoke violence and harshly suppress peaceful protest.
We’ve always known these things, but the scales have fallen from our eyes.
We have seen how police supported by our own taxes
Managed by officials we elect
And armed with surplus from our bloated military
Walk the way of empire,
Sometimes benefiting us, and sometimes hurting us,
But consistently keeping black people, brown people, queer people, female people, poor people many other people disadvantaged, silenced and disposable.
We feel sad. We feel angry. We feel confused. We feel guilty. We feel powerless. But we are committed to follow You.
O, that you would tear wide the heavens and come down! Give ear to the chants of your people! Let the outcry come before you!
Save the unjustly imprisoned! Heal the injured! Cast down the mighty from their thrones, and lift up the lowly! Fill the hungry with good things, and make the rich share their hoardings!
Give us eyes to see the truth of our society, and the hearts to bear that truth. Keep those who march safe, and keep us safe when we join them. Give us the sense to listen most to those who suffer the most, and then follow with our voices, wallets and votes. Give us Christ-like courage to use our privilege to dismantle the systems that oppress the many to the benefit of the few, even when we are among the few.
Let us work for your kin-dom, as we pray week after week lifting the prayer Jesus taught us:
Our Father who art in heaven……
God loves you this week too, so go live accordingly.
So go into all the world:
In the love of God who created you,
The peace of Christ who redeemed you,
And the power of the Holy Spirit
Who will sustain you
Through everything. Amen.
This is Mark's final sermon at Plymouth as Dir. of Christian Formation for Adults. Mark brings a passion for Christian education that bears fruit in social justice. He has had a lifelong fascination with theology, with a particular emphasis on how Biblical hermeneutics shape personal and political action. Prior to coming to Plymouth, Mark served as pastor for Metropolitan Community Churches in Fort Collins, Cheyenne, and Rapid City.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning
Plymouth Congregational UCC Fort Collins, Colorado
19 November 2017
A man goes on a long journey, leaving behind him a cadre of folks he hoped would invest his assets wisely. Do you know what it’s like to come home from a three-month sabbatical and find this text waiting for you?!
Actually, it’s perfect! In their wisdom, the folks who created the lectionary plop this text into the season of harvest here in the northern hemisphere, which in many congregations coincides happily with stewardship season. And so when you hear someone pick this text apart, you can usually be fairly certain that they are going to “go financial on you”… that somehow the return on investment from these silver talents will be reflected in the church budget. Well, I’m not going there today. (That said, if you pledge for 2018 isn’t in yet, I know that you can lower the blood pressure of fellow members on the Budget & Finance Committee by pledging today!)
You know, I don’t think that Jesus’ hearers would typically be the kind of folk who would be in the position of financial managers who are entrusted by a master to expand his wealth. So, if it isn’t about money and a solid return on investment, what it is about? I wonder if it is something far more valuable, far more elemental than silver. I am going to hazard a guess that this parable of Jesus is about us.
I know you’ve heard a few parables this fall, and it is important to remember the function of a parable, which is to make us stop and think differently about a situation, to puzzle with it, to wrestle with it, to go deeper.
What if the wealth that is invested with us is not our money, but ourselves…our deepest selves…the very life that has been given and entrusted to us by God? Stop for just a minute and think about that: each one of us, the old and young, the foolish and wise, the rich and poor…all of us have been given one life to live out fully. As Jesus says, “I came that you may have life, and have it in abundance.”[John 10:10] That’s the greatest gift for each of us: abundant living. Whether our lives are long or short they can be lived in abundance in each moment.
So if you use that framework, think for a moment about the master going on a long journey and entrusting you with your life. Our cultural framework is based on radical individualism and the notion that “it’s my life to live however I want.” And I might quibble with the theology behind that. What if we saw our lives as a gift from God entrusted to us, not simply for our own satisfaction and enjoyment, but also an investment in God’s kingdom? We only get one life, so we need to make it count.
Each of us has gifts within us; some of them are obvious and some of them are quite well hidden. And sometimes we aren’t even aware of them, because we have quashed our talents and not given ourselves permission to live our lives in full abundance.
I was reading a book last week by Elizabeth Gilbert, about unleashing creativity, called The Big Magic, and it had all kinds of resonances with this parable: “Do you have the courage to bring forth the treasures that are hidden within you?” she asks. “Look, I don’t know what’s hidden within you. I have no way of knowing such a thing. You yourself may barely know, although I suspect you’ve caught glimpses. I don’t know your capacities, your aspirations, your longings, your secret talents. But surely something wonderful is sheltered inside you. I say this with all confidence, because I happen to believe we are all walking repositories of buried treasure. I believe this is one of the oldest and most generous tricks the universe [aka God] plays on us human beings, both for its own amusement and for ours; The universe buries strange jewels deep within us all, and then stands back to see if we can find them.”1
I’m going to invite you to pull out your bulletin or a piece of paper and jot down some of your own thoughts about your deepest longings and your gifts. What are some of those jewels that are still buried deep within you? What are some of the yet-unlived dreams, the yet-undeveloped talents, the yet-unwritten stories that are waiting within you to be mined? Make a note or two for yourself. Bring that into your prayers this week and see how you might go on a treasure hunt that will yield jewels not just for you, but for God and God’s realm.
Irenaeus of Lyon, a second-century bishop wrote that “the glory of God is a human being fully alive.” Have you experienced being with someone who is fully alive? Who has grasped living life with abundance? Who is uncovering and mining the jewels, the gifts, within themselves and sharing that giftedness with the world? We talk about people as being charismatic, and that literally means those who possess a gift. But it’s more than having a nice smile and an engaging personality: it’s being authentically who God created us to be and using our God-given talents.
So, if we all have gifts, why aren’t we using them? What are the obstacles that are getting in the way of us becoming “human beings fully alive?”
Let’s go back to the parable for a moment. Two of the three slaves understand that their master wanted them to unpack their gifts and increase what he had entrusted two them. They don’t spend any time making excuses…they just report how they doubled what had been entrusted to them. The third slave, who buried his treasure and kept it hidden, said, “Master, I knew you were a harsh man” as he tries to explain why he had not increased what he had been given. What kept the last slave from expanding what was entrusted to him was fear.
How many lives could be infinitely more rich if we could help one another move beyond our fear? I’m not talking about sensible fear of things like rattlesnakes and bungie jumping. I’m talking about the chorus of little negative voices within us that beat the constant refrain: “You’re not good enough.” “You’re not old enough.” “You’re not young enough.” “You’re not smart enough.” “You’re not faithful enough.” “You’re not beautiful enough.” “You don’t have time.”
All of us have at times sense those negative voices and the kind of fear that paralyzes us from becoming fully alive and uncovering the talents that lay buried deep within us. And it’s time to acknowledge that we have those fears and say “enough” and put them on the sidelines.
What we need to overcome those fear-laden voices is courage. You may never have thought about yourself as courageous or brave…because you experience fear. But without fear, there is no opportunity to live into courage. Courage is all about doing something scary, stepping out into the risk-zone.
I know that churches in general hate taking risks. But if you look at what we have done at Plymouth, you’ll see the high points of our history all involve risk-taking: starting an immigrant church, moving from Old Town to Prospect Road, calling LGBT clergy in the 1990s, voting to become Open and Affirming, expanding and improving our building, standing up for undocumented immigrants.
Courage is about acknowledging the fear and then moving forward with faith. Sometimes we forget that we are not doing this alone and that God has our back.
I also want to challenge you all to look within yourselves and see if some of your giftedness is in helping this particular outpost of the kingdom of God reach its mission by saying yes to serving as a lay leader, as a member of one of our boards or the leadership council. It takes courage to lead, and we want to help develop new leaders within this congregation, so if you have an inkling and want to talk more, I’m available!
When I was in St. Gallen, Switzerland, in September, I stayed in an AirBnb with four young guys, and they invited me to have dinner with their friends, and they asked what our congregation was like, and when I told them about being ONA, doing work around immigration reform, and homelessness prevention, they said, “Oh, our government does all that for us.” Well, our government isn’t doing that, so we need to step up with courage.
Incredibly gifted people comprise Plymouth…together, we have the capacity to expand the talents that have been entrusted to us. We need each one of our members to look within themselves prayerfully and ask what talents they have to contribute to God’s realm. We need to step up with courage, with conviction, and with faith to do become the fully-alive congregation that God intends us to be.
I close today with the words of Marianne Williamson, which you may have heard Nelson Mandela offer at his inauguration:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”2
May it be so. Amen.
1 Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. (NY: Riverhead, 2016), p. 8.
2 Marianne Williamson, A Return to Love. (SF: HarperOne, 1996).
© 2017 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.
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