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.
Grief & Change & Joy
Jeremiah 4.23-28a & Psalm 31.1-5,9-10,14b-15a
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
The images in our scripture texts today echo the inner landscape of grief as I have experienced and while everyone’s experience of grief is different, I’m guessing that some of these images may resonate with you. The sorrow, despair, and anger, the need for solace and help that grief brings are held in these texts. This day in September, 9/11, has held cries and echoes of grief in our nation for 21 years. Each year we remember when terrorist extremists attacked the World Trade Center in New York City, the Pentagon in Washington, DC and attempted to attack our nation’s capital. We have each experienced many kinds of grief since then or before then. and acutely so in the last two and a half years. New grief brings up old grief. Grief is more a part of the landscape of our lives than we want to acknowledge, and it has always been so for human being. Listen with me to these ancient words of scripture from a prophet grieving for his nation, Israel. And from a poet, a song-writer, singing a grieving prayer for protection from the sorrows of the world.
23I looked at the earth, and it was without shape or form; at the heavens and there was no light. 24I looked at the mountains and they were quaking; all the hills were rocking back and forth. 25I looked and there was no one left; every bird in the sky had taken flight. 26I looked and the fertile land was a desert; all its towns were in ruins before the [Holy ONE], before [the] fury. 27The [Holy ONE] proclaims: The whole earth will become a desolation, but I will not destroy it completely. 28Therefore, the earth will grieve …
Bible, CEB Common English Bible with Apocrypha - eBook [ePub] (Kindle Locations 29664-29676). Kindle Edition.
I take refuge in you, LORD. Please never let me be put to shame. Rescue me by your righteousness! 2Listen closely to me! Deliver me quickly; be a rock that protects me; be a strong fortress that saves me! 3You are definitely my rock and my fortress. Guide me and lead me for the sake of your good name! 4Get me out of this net that's been set for me because you are my protective fortress. 5I entrust my spirit into your hands; you, [Holy ONE], God of faithfulness-- you have saved me. … 9Have mercy on me, [Holy God], because I'm depressed. My vision fails because of my grief, as do my spirit and my body. 10My life is consumed with sadness; my years are consumed with groaning. Strength fails me because of my suffering; my bones dry up. … 14… [Yet]I trust you, [GOD]! I affirm, "You are my God." 15My future is in your hands. …
Bible, CEB Common English Bible with Apocrypha - eBook [ePub] (Kindle Locations 20310-20340). Kindle Edition.
It came as a shock to me at the age of twenty-four that grief would be a part of my whole life. I guess I thought that grief was something you could avoid if you worked hard at having a happy ever after and worked hard at being a good person, a good Christian. But at twenty-four, I learned that, indeed, bad things happen to good people when my youngest sister died in a car accident at the age of sixteen. Not her fault or the fault of the teenage driver who was her friend. Someone else’s mistake. Still, it happened and could not be undone. Big grief, in my face.
We all come to a reckoning with individual grief at some point in life – through a death, an illness, a job loss, a relationship loss. If we are lucky, we first learn as children surrounded by loving companions, parents, family to grieve through the loss of a pet. This teaches us in a very real but gentler situation the ways of sorrow and how to mourn, how to externalize the pain in our hearts through ritual and words. Beyond our individual griefs are our experiences, like today, 9/11, of communal grief. You can probably each name your first realization of communal grief. My first was as a second grader on the playground in Fort Worth, Texas, when the announcement came that the president, John F. Kennedy, had been shot and killed in our neighboring city, Dallas. Our children and youth today have witnessed with us too many of these communal/national/worldwide events of grief in the last several years.
Grief is a part of life. Sorrow is a part of life. Do any of us like this? No. Our culture considers grief to be the enemy of joy in our lives. How can anything be right, be okay, be normal when we are grieving? The pain is too great. It hurts too much. So, if you are anything like me, perhaps, you sometimes try to deny the grief, compartmentalize it, to move through it. You push it aside to find meaning in your work or in helping other people, or in your family, your hobbies. We can focus on anything, even to the point of addiction, to avoid grief - work, entertainment, volunteering, exercise, relationships, substances from coffee to sugar, to alcohol. Anything to not feel the pain. So that we can make it through another day. We may run from grief, but we cannot hide because we hold grief in our bodies no matter how hard we try to ignore it. And grief comes with every change in life, every change. Even good change.
The prophet, Jeremiah, whom scholars call the “weeping prophet,” lamented all the changes coming to the people of Israel, with their idolatrous ways, as Jerusalem was invaded, and temple torn down. His world was drastically changed…we might being feeling the same as we grieve with the people of Ukraine and as we come to grips with climate change. “The mountains are quaking; all the hills were rocking back and forth. … there is no one left; every bird in the sky had taken flight. …the fertile land is a desert; all its towns were in ruins…the earth is grieving.” The psalmist cries out for us, “Holy ONE, listen closely to me! …. Guide me. … I entrust my spirit into your hands… My vision fails because of my grief, as do my spirit and my body. [Yet]I trust you! … My future is in your hands. …” The psalmist’s Hebrew name for God in this song is,” el emet, the God who can be relied on and believed in, trusted in.”[i] When I feel my deepest moments of grief, I cling to trust in this same God, trusting that she will continue to be who she has steadfastly been revealed to be through the changes of millennia.
Change is always with us. Grief at some level is always with us. What are we to do but soldier on, gritting our teeth? I have felt this way….have you? So much so that I was surprised to read an essay by social activist leader, Malkia Devich-Cyril, former executive director of MediaJustice, inviting me to befriend grief. What if grief is not the enemy? What if we can learn about change and joy in the very middle of grief? This is what Malkia learned about the death of her mother from sickle cell anemia and the death of her wife from cancer, both at ages way too young.[ii]
Prompted by the experience and work of Malkia Devich-Cyril and adrienne maree brown, her colleague and friend, I am learning that grief is holy and necessary for real change. “To have a movement that breathes,” writes Malkia, “you must build a movement with the capacity to grieve.”[iii] These two women of color have been working for and in social change movements for over twenty-five years, so I trust their observations along with the words of the ancient prophet and psalmist. We live in and work with this beloved community of faith, which is also a social change movement. We are the movement of the kingdom, the kin-dom of God. Jesus, our movement leader, knew that grief was a skill for change. He wept at the death of this friend, Lazarus. He wept over Jerusalem, the City of God, that struggled with oppression, with greed, with poverty. Jesus knew that grief is holy. Grief is a friend of God. And grief can be our friend, if we allow it to move through our bodies, teaching us to embrace change, to love and serve with more compassion, to see each other and the earth as God’s beloveds.
To begin, we remember that grief is non-linear. It is a time-traveling emotion that appears again and again in our lives in new and old forms, for new and old reasons. It is iterative and repetitive. It spirals through life even when things are going great, even when we are rejoicing, even in our joy.[iv] Joy is not the opposite of grief. It is a beloved sibling of grief. The opposite of grief is indifference. If we truly do not care, we will not grieve. Grief is a profound out-pouring of love and in love there this always joy, even if it is sitting right next to grief.
If understanding grief is a skill for understanding life, for understanding change, for understanding more about faith, what do we need to know?
This is what we learn when we befriend our grief. We learn that If you don’t really care about something, if you are indifferent to it, you don’t grieve when you lose it. So, I suggest to all of you in this room that because you have chosen to come to worship in a faith community, to be in community, if only for an hour, that you are not indifferent to Life. You love Life. You are working to love yourself in God’s image and to love others. You are not indifferent. And so, you are most likely bringing your grief here with you, large or small, personal and/or communal. And you are bringing your greatest joys which may be closely bound to your grief. A community of faith is a safe place to become grounded in our grief. This is a place where we learn with others to grieve, to lament, to rejoice and to give thanks. I’m glad you are here today.
That was a lot of information about a subject that we don’t like to talk about – grief. Take a moment and let whatever you need to hear, sink in. As the psalmist reminds us, this is a place of refuge in the presence of the Holy and one another. Remember that you are breathing. (pause)
After the service today, as a way of continuing this service and grieving together, you are invited to make a prayer flag and place it on our tree there in the yard. You will find the flags or streamers and markers in the Fellowship Hall. Write your grief, your prayer, your lament, your joy on the flag and place it on the tree. This is an act of mourning that can take the grief you feel and move it through your body. It can be an act of memory and thanksgiving that we do together on this day that we remember grief.
Let’s pray together: Holy ONE, you are with us before we call your name. Teach us to grieve so that we can in turn give and receive your love. Teach us to befriend the grief of life’s changes that we may be agents of your change for justice and love in our world. Amen.
[i] James L. May, Psalms, INTERPRETATION, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, (John Knox Press, Louisville, KY: 1994, 143).
[ii] Malkia Devich-Cyril, “To Give Your Hands to Freedom, First Give Them to Grief,” ed. adrienne maree brown, Holding Change, The Way of Emergent Strategy Facilitation and Mediation, (AK Press, Chico, CA: 2021, 64-79).
[iii] Ibid., 79.
[iv] adrienne maree brown, Emergent Strategy, Shaping Change, Changing Worlds, (AK Press, Chico, CA: 2017, 105-107).
[v] Devich-Cyril, 78.
[vi] Ibid., 75-78.
[vii] Ibid., 78.
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.