The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph
I Corinthians 12: 12-31
Plymouth Congregational UCC,
Fort Collins, Colorado
Will you join with me in prayer? May the words of my mouth and the sparks of joy of all of our hearts be good and pleasing to you, O God, our rock and our curator. Amen.
Happy Congregation-Reorganization Day! I think of Annual Meeting as when we decide to be congregation again. Since this is our 116th organization day for Plymouth as church, I want to borrow some best practices from a different industry to help us better understand own commitment as the Body of Christ.
Now, I am a self-proclaimed “conference escape artist!” Do any of you know what I am talking about? Whenever I get the advance schedule for a conference I will be attending, I always look for the gaps, the unscheduled lunches, or the “optional” evening plenaries. I do this for one very specific reason—I need to find time in the schedule to visit the local art museums. Out of principle, as a matter of traveling ethics, I refuse to visit a new city and only see the inside of hotel meeting rooms. While I will always attend and be totally present for all of the meat and potatoes of the conference as the reason for being there, I make a point to find the time somewhere in the schedule that allow me to visit the most sacred space in any major city—the art collections and flagship museums.
Think about this with me. Even when Detroit was bankrupt a couple of years ago, the citizens of that city refused to talk about liquidation the Detroit Institute of Art. Denver is renovating its art museum as a way to communicate to the world the value it places on art. The Walker or MIA in Minneapolis, The High Museum in Atlanta, The Nelson-Atkins in Kansas City (even saying its name makes me weak at the knees), LACMA or the Getty in LA, the Met in New York, The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, The Art Institute of Chicago... are all the Sacred Spaces/Chapels in their respective communities. They represent community spirit, organization, and hope.
I learn important lessons about God, ministry, and how to do the work of church well from art museums. Next time you visit one, see how these very old institutions are doing cool programing, changing their hours, and reinventing themselves to be relevant and attractive to everyone in ways that the Church hasn’t yet! There is no institution the Church can learn more from than the field of art museum management.
I have already shared this analogy with the three boards I work with, but I want to share it with all of you on this our Annual Meeting Sunday. I view being a minister like being a curator of a prominent art museum (or in my case one of the assistant curators responsible for certain rotating exhibits). I understand you, the members, as the artists through whom the Holy Spirit works, expresses God’s will, and communicates the needs in and of the community here at Plymouth, in Fort Collins, and around the world. You are the Holy Spirit-artists painting and sculpting with every color and medium imaginable (social justice, worship, fellowship) to form an oeuvre or a Body of Work that we call the Body of Christ. You are the Body of Christ forming a great body of spiritual art.
As a minister, my role is to curate. This is the act or process of organizing and looking after the art of the people. It is to organize, to promote, to systematize, to find the right lighting or the funding or the arrangement to showcase and make your Holy Spirit artwork visible, known, and possible. Yes, ministry at its best is the art of curation of community.
Let’s start over this morning: “Hi, I’m Jake. I am one of the assistant curators here at the Plymouth Gallery of Fine Spiritual Art!”
Describing my job as spiritual curation has changed how I relate to you and your vision. The way in which you define your job for yourself, changes how you approach and execute the work, right? Being clergy in terms of curation has given my visits and escapes to art museums a new theological purpose. It begs me to ask: What are the best practices or the promising practices out there in the curation industry, in the organization world, in the tidying industry that I need to pay attention to as I care for this Body of Christ and help make it even more visible and understood in 2019? How can we as church do a better job of making the artwork of the spirit visible and known and well preserved?
How can we better curate your incredible Spirit-Driven artwork as a congregation?
Our Scripture today, in my opinion, is Paul’s way of telling the Christians in Corinth that all of their gifts, their different skills and styles of Spiritual Artwork are welcome, needed, and positively contribute to the masterpiece collection of Christ. A good art museum, as I have learned through my travels, is a well-diversified collection. The Christians in Corinth had been fighting about who was the greatest and who had the most important gifts for Christian ministry. Is it the Egyptology Collection, Impressionists, or the Expressionists… certainly not the Surrealists?! Friends, they were fighting over which ministry teams had first right of refusal for the Corinthian Fellowship Hall, right? Whose artwork of the spirit should be exhibited most prominently in the space provided. Paul comes back to them with this magnificent letter that has set the tone for the last 2,000 years of Christianity: All are needed and, in fact, essential. It is one body of work in Jesus Christ. Just as the body is one and has many members, so is it with the Body of Christ. The collection that is the Body of Work in Christ is as indivisible as the Detroit Institute of Art’s collection—it constitutes a Sacred Whole in diversity.
One Scholar wrote, “The well-known analogy between the human body and the body politic illustrates his argument for the diversity of the Spirit’s manifestations for the common good…The argument opposes the ‘honor’ values of hierarchical aristocratic Greek and imperial Roman culture, in insisting on the solidarity of the interdependent and equally valued members.”
Paul is a curator of the Spirit in a living art gallery of Christian Community! And this act of treating power, leadership, and authority of community with a sense of equality, which we continue here in the United Church of Christ, is radically countercultural. It is an act of rebellion both in Paul’s time and today.
As your one of your ministry curators and organizers, I would like to point out that today is very special in the life of our Body of Christ. Today, we gather to decide to contribute our masterpieces to this Art Gallery of the Holy Spirit again in 2019. Today, we agree as a congregation, to do this whole thing over again for what…the 116th time? Every year on my wedding anniversary, I get down on one knee and re-propose to Gerhard. He always says, “yes,” but the point is to reaffirm the covenant. That is what we do, as community and congregation, at Annual Meeting.
This is the Sunday when we do more than pass budgets and follow Robert’s Rules of Order (much to the joy of our former Presbyterians), but we also reaffirm our desire to be artists together, a Body of Christ, a gathering of Spirit-artists together for another year-long art show. Today, we claim the calling of Paul in 1 Corinthians, Chapter 12 as our own calling to be community in diversity. Today, we say “yes” again.
So, as we organize today, as a living art gallery of spiritual art, I would like to draw your attention to a pop-culture, worldwide phenomenon on the topic of personal curation and organization: Japanese Organizing Expert Marie Kondo.
How many of you already know who I am talking about?
Marie Kondo has become my favorite modern theologian in over past couple of weeks as I have read her book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. First with her books and now with her Netflix Series, Marie Kondo is changing how people and communities place value on things and learn to treasure what actually matters. I believe that Paul and Jesus would approve! The KonMari Method, as she calls it, is a doctrine of rebellion against a society that tells us to hold onto everything: resentments, revenge, rage (the three R’s), stuff, junk, and belongings. We are conditioned to hoard out of fear. We fear forgetting, not having enough, or being in a state of needing something we once had and have lost or given up. In this age of selfishness and monochromatic (look-alike) printer ministries, this is a reminder to our call to let go of habits of hoarding so we may rediscover the full palette of possibility.
Today, as we reorganize our life of church, as we prepare ourselves for a year’s worth of new artistic ministry curation and gallery openings, I would like for us to think of 2019 as the year of KonMari Christianity.
As the Body of Christ, we owe this to ourselves as community. Here are a couple insights from Marie Kondo that are relevant to our organization day as a Body of Christ and maybe also have resonance for you in your own lives.
1. Lesson 1: Don’t live for yesterday or fear next year! “We can only transform our lives if we sincerely want to. Small changes transform our lives. There are two reasons we can’t let go: an attachment to the past or a fear of the future.” Friends, as we assemble as a congregation again for 2019, how do we hope to transform Plymouth, Fort Collins and the world? In your own lives, friends, what are you holding onto that is an attachment to the past but doesn’t give you life right now? “There are three approaches we can take towards our possessions: face them now, face them later, or avoid them until the day we die. The choice is ours…If we acknowledge our attachment to the past and our fears for the future by honestly looking at our possessions [or systems] we will be able to see what is really important to us…If you are going to put your house in order do it now.” The first lesson on community curation is face stuff directly and don’t hang onto stuff or structures because of an unhealthy attachment to the past or a fear for the future. To be the best church we can in 2019, we need to live fully for ministry in this year!
2. Lesson 2: “Cherish who you are now!” How many of us use the word cherish mostly in reference to memories, to keepsakes, or to that which we no longer think we have? Do you cherish who you are now? Do we as a congregation cherish (adore and celebrate) the amazing, generous congregation we are on this very day? As your associate curator, I cherish who you are now. Marie Kondo brings up this topic in terms of those boxes of pictures of unopened photo albums we all have at home and here in the archives. She observes that most of the joy of having pictures is mostly found in the moment of taking the picture not in the storing of the pictures. This gets at a bigger and deeper spiritual point: “Cherish the things you love. Cherish yourself: Find what you truly cherish in life. Cherish who you are and what brings you joy and fulfillment.” As congregation, let us learn to cherish all of the Body Parts of Christ and celebrate them in the now.
3. Lesson 3: “Spark Joy!” The idea of "spark joy" is by far the most popular and most important contribution of Marie Kondo. And it's why I think, no matter if you have Netflix or not, all of us need to become KonMari Christians. In a time of darkness and fear, Marie Kondo has brought millions of people two important theological questions. What is joy? & What does joy mean to you? She doesn’t offer a definition of joy, but she demands that we answer this question in the deepest part of our hearts. Where is your joy? She then asks, “What sparks joy in your life?” You are Holy Spirit artists, but you need more creative freedom! Marie Kondo tells us, “When you do this, you will be surprised at how clearly you can tell the difference between those that touch your heart and those that don’t. As always, only keep the ones that inspire joy!” (Or see this New Yorker cartoon...)
As a young ministry curator in a very old and sometimes dusty art museum of ministry, the United Church of Christ, I am almost daily asked in one form or another why young people aren’t in church and to diagnose what is wrong with Church in general in 2019. That is almost fitting since the etymology of “to curate” comes from the same root as “to cure” meaning to attend and stay vigilant to those who are ill. The world eventually evolved from healthcare to vigilance in attending to art collections…and today we extend it to ministry.
It does make me wonder how my age (30 years old) is somehow a credential to wisdom on this important topic? I have struggled to answer this question until now. The number one thing that church has forgotten, especially in the midst of our campaigns of all sorts and systemic internal anxieties is that our primary purpose is to help people learn how to find joy again! We are called to help re-spark joy in living in the midst of death, depression, loss, and fear. It is the Church’s job to always spark joy in in community in the midst of toxic politics. It is our job to spark joy and ALWAYS point to the dynamic-artistic-creative relationship with Jesus Christ and God. The Christian Church should, at its best, spark joy everywhere it is found and every time anyone encounters our touchpoints or presence. This is the primary call of Church Community: Spark Joy!
The world, friends, needs a macro organizing expert. Our systems for categorizing, ethics for doing collective laundry, our patterns for decision making are not working. Christianity and all of the big world religions need a revamp and a KonMari Closet Emptying! Like our Sabbatical Interim Senior, The Rev. Ron Patterson, said in his sermons last year for Reformation Sunday, we need a giant garage sale as church! We need to ground ourselves again in the sparking, lit, burning joy of communities of sparking joy in a depressed world.
In the words of Marie Kondo: “If we acknowledged our attachment to the past and to our fears for the future by honestly looking at our possessions, we will be able to see what is really important to us. This process in turn helps us identify our values and reduce doubt and confusion in making life decisions…
"If you can say without a doubt, ‘I really like this!’ no matter what anyone else says, and if you like yourself for having it, then ignore what other people think…All you need to do is get rid of anything that doesn’t touch your heart…As for you, pour your time and passion into what brings you the most joy, your mission in life.”
It is one of the greatest honors to be an associate curator here in your Art Gallery of the Holy Spirit called Plymouth. Today, as we reorganize for yet another year, my prayer is that we truly remember our purpose to be a place that we all say, ‘I really like this’ no matter what anyone else says and to spark joy in the hearts of our members, our visitors, our community, and the world. Mostly, we Pray that, as always, we Spark Joy in the heart of God the Creator and Great Curator of life.
Spark Joy, friends! Let’s do this 2019 thing!
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.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC Fort Collins, Colorado
December 3, 2017
I’d like to start with a question: What is the primary medium through which you get the news? Perhaps if I asked this question even five years ago, I would get a different answer. How many of you read a newspaper either in paper form or online? How many of you consider a news magazine like Time or The Week as the primary way you get the news? How many of you listen to radio as your primary news source? How about television news? How about from on online-only source like Buzzfeed or a news aggregator like Flipboard? How many of you rely on social media like Facebook for your news?
I’d like to ask another question: How many of you find the news more upsetting, disquieting, overwhelming, anxiety-inducing, and downright scary than you did, say, two years ago?
One of the things I notice in myself as I have shifted from sitting down at breakfast with the morning paper…a physical paper…and reading it online is the pace and flow of my consumption of the news. When you read a newspaper or a news magazine you are entirely in control of the pace of your reading. If you start to feel overwhelmed by the grief or anger of yet another woman who has been subjected to sexual harassment, you can pause, ponder, think about its context, and come back to the story. But if you are getting your news online and have sat down at the computer to read a story in the New York Times, you are less likely to take a pause to think, to consider, and to finish your cup of coffee. Electronic media -– even good journalism, which seems to be in decline -– stream at you and demand your attention in the way that paper sources do not. And that likely results in a sense of being overwhelmed by sensationalism, by inflammatory tweets, and by “entertainment” news that doesn’t really matter. And no matter how we get the news, the content itself seems more daunting every day.
In her address accepting a lifetime achievement award from the National Book Award, author Annie Proulx last month offered a stinging and truthful summation of what we together confront:
“We don’t live in the best of all possible worlds. This is a Kafkaesque time. The television sparkles with images of despicable political louts and sexual harassment reports. We cannot look away from the pictures of furious elements, hurricanes and fires, from the repetitive crowd murders by gunmen burning with rage. We are made more anxious by flickering threats of nuclear war. We observe social media’s manipulation of a credulous population, a population dividing into bitter tribal cultures. We are living through a massive shift from representative democracy to something called viral direct democracy, now cascading over us in a garbage-laden tsunami of raw data. Everything is situational, seesawing between gut-response ‘likes’ or vicious confrontations. For some this is a heady time of brilliant technological innovation that is bringing us into an exciting new world. For others it is the opening of a savagely difficult book without a happy ending.
“To me the most distressing circumstance of the new order is the accelerating destruction of the natural world and the dreadful belief that only the human species has the inalienable right to life and God-given permission to take anything it wants from nature, whether mountaintops, wetlands or oil.”1
You may be wondering what this has to do with Advent.
Listen to how one Old Testament scholar describes the setting for today’s scripture: “Events moved at a dizzying speed for the Jewish people between 550 and 515 BCE, the period of thirty-five years that produced” this section of the book of Isaiah. You will remember that this is the period when a significant number of the best and brightest of the Jewish people were taken into captivity and exile in Babylon. “The crises of those years would have tested even the most robust and secure of communities. But the Jewish community of”2 that time was neither robust nor secure. Even though they may have had been economically prosperous during that portion of the exile, their spiritual alienation was profound. “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel!”
It doesn’t sound so very far off from where you and I find ourselves as we begin this trek through Advent this year. Some of us are enjoying a record-setting stock market; some of us will benefit from the tax plan the Senate passed yesterday, whether or not we oppose or support it; Colorado has a historically low 2.7% unemployment rate. But we all understand in our gut that something is not right. We are a people in exile. “O come, O come, Emmanuel!”
Many in our nation may be enjoying material prosperity, but it comes as we face an environmental crisis of unparalleled proportions and it comes on the backs of those laboring in sweatshops in China and the developing world and in fields from California to Florida. We have a profound spiritual problem in this nation if we think the situation is acceptable.
So, where do we turn? Where do we find comfort and joy in the face of a tsunami of bad news and injustice? Listen to the prophet: “The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever. Get you up to a high mountain… lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God!’
“See, the Lord GOD comes with might…He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.”
I was struck by what I heard in two separate conversations last week with members of our congregation. One woman, who is quite politically active, told me that Plymouth is the one place in her life that is a source of strength right now. One man who is experiencing a rough time with his family said that he comes to worship because it is the one hour a week when he can calm himself and just be at peace. “O Come, O come, Emmanuel!”
And when I see our teens sleeping out on Plymouth’s front lawn for the 13th consecutive year to raise funds and awareness, I am warmed and given hope. Their efforts have an immediate impact, and the sleep-out also helps to inform who these young people are becoming and where their priorities lie. Whether they know it or not, our teens are bringing us and others comfort and joy!
When we are planning worship at Plymouth, we don’t use a whole lot of electronic media, especially in the morning, in part because we want it to be a time when spiritual renewal can take place. So welcome to live, handcrafted, artisanal, free-range, no hormones added worship! I hope that it brings you joy!
I know that part of the DNA of our congregation is doing and acting for justice, and I also hope that each of us can take comfort and deep joy from our faith and from the presence of God within and among us. “O Come, O come, Emmanuel!”
In their dialogic Book of Joy, the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu conclude that our pursuit for outward happiness based on things and accomplishments ultimately results in dissatisfaction and suffering. And that joy is something far more profound than happiness. The archbishop compares joy to a mother coming through the pain of childbirth and how that pain is transformed into the joy of bringing new life into the world. It is a metaphor with deep resonances in this Advent season as we prepare for the arrival of Christ once more.
May you find a few deep breaths of peace even if you are overly busy. May you find comfort and joy in your faith, even if you are overwhelmed by the news. May you find a refuge and a sanctuary here at Plymouth to shelter you, to inspire you, and give you hope.
O Come, O come, Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel, who mourns in lonely exile here; until the son of God appear. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!
1 reprinted at http://www.vulture.com/2017/11/annie-proulx-national-book-award- speech.html
2 Paul D. Hanson, Interpretation: Isaiah 40–66.(Phila.: WJK Press, 1995), p. 1
© 2017 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to reprint, which will happily 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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