The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Cong’l UCC
19 March 2023
I love that Jesus overturns the “blame the victim” mentality by saying that this man’s blindness is not fault of his own or his parents’; instead, his real thrust is giving new sight to the blind. There is certainly a literal dimension that can be derived from the story: that Jesus spat into the dirt, rubbed mud in the blind man’s eyes, and sent him to wash in the pool of Siloam, restoring his vision. There are more healing stories about Jesus than anyone else in Jewish tradition. And if we limit our interpretation of the story to that one view, it is applicable only to that one person, 2,000 years ago, not to us.
Speaking metaphorically, we all have blind spots, don’t we? There are things we’d rather not know about – that we’d rather not see – perhaps because we are already overloaded with suffering in the world and even in our own lives. I know that lots of us are overwhelmed.
But we do an amazing job in this congregation of seeing and doing. And we do pretty well as a denomination also, especially through our One Great Hour of Sharing offering. Here is the thing about One Great Hour of Sharing: We didn’t necessarily SEE where our dollars were going when we gave last year at this time, but we had a vision for what it might do. (Are you able to visualize that distinction?) In retrospect, one of the things you made possible was an immediate UCC response to the relief from the war in Ukraine. But at the beginning of 2022, we had no idea that war would come to Ukraine bringing devastation and a huge refugee crisis. Even though none of us saw that situation in advance, your giving to One Great Hour of Sharing made refugee relief possible from the very onset of the crisis.
One of the shortcomings of focusing just on local outreach that we can see is that it limits our scope of vision to only those in our midst. There are great needs in other parts of the country and other parts of the world that you and I may never see ourselves, but they are situations where our global partners need our help. I’m not saying that doing local outreach work is unimportant. We know it is important because we can see it. But it is also vital that we develop vision that focuses more broadly on the needs of God’s world.
Sometimes our blindness is closer to home. We are unable to see what is most important. We take it for granted until it is gone, or almost gone – whether it is our health, our relationships, or just being alive. We need to open our eyes to the world around us, to the people around us, to ourselves, and to the holy.
There are things we cannot see with our eyes, but that we know to be true. Physicists don’t actually see subatomic particles, but they see evidence for their existence. And how many of us doubt the existence of quarks and neutrinos, just because nobody has ever laid eyes on them?
I listened to a talk by Amy Jill Levine, a respected New Testament scholar, and she claimed that there are real, invisible things in our lives that no one should try to negate or to take away. She spoke about faith. No one ever sees faith, and it isn’t even a logical concept. One can see the impact and result of lives lived faithfully. No one ever sees love, which also isn’t a logical concept. Yet we see the effects of love every day. Just because we cannot see things with our eyes does mean they are not real.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote in The Little Prince: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly.” If our blindness is in our hearts, rather than our eyes, we can ask God to apply some mud, and wash our hearts, and then we’ll be able to see. The restoration of sight to people like us, whose hearts are unable to see, is a tall order.
When Jesus is quoted in John’s gospel, saying, “I am the light of the world,” the gospel writer proclaims that it is Jesus who gives us a vision of what is real, because he illuminates reality for us: the things we can see with our hearts, rather than just with our eyes.
What is it that keeps you from “seeing rightly?” What is impairing your sight? I was reading a Lenten devotional essay this week and it struck me that what keeps many of us from seeing clearly is fear. The author claims that “frightened people will never turn the world right-side up, because they use too much energy on protection of self. It is the vocation of the baptized…to help make the world whole: The unafraid are open to the neighbor, while the frightened are defending themselves from the neighbor.
The unafraid are generous in the community, while the frightened, in their anxiety, must keep and store and accumulate, to make themselves feel safe.
The unafraid commit acts of compassion and mercy, while the frightened do not notice those in need.
The unafraid are committed to justice for the weak and the poor, while the frightened seem them only as threats.
The unafraid pray in the morning, care through the day, and rejoice at night in thanks and praise, while the frightened are endlessly restless and dissatisfied.” Is fear holding you back from seeing with the eyes of your heart?
John Newton’s blind spot was the self-deception that the slave trade was morally acceptable, but after having his viewpoint transformed, he wrote “Amazing Grace” to describe his experience. When have you been blind, but now you see?
This occurs not just among individuals, but in institutions, as well. The church has certainly has had its share of blind spots over the millennia, whether in forbidding the ordination of women, using scripture to justify slavery, demonizing LGBTQ folks, or developing Christian nationalism in Nazi Germany and in our own nation.
On a more local level, I wonder what our blind spots at Plymouth have been, and are today. I’m sure if we tried, we could come up with quite a laundry list! Where have we not had the vision to do what needs to be done? Sometimes our lack of vision involves traveling along the safe route, when taking some risks would be a more faithful response.
If we are bathed in the light of the Christ, we are called to open the eyes of our hearts and see the reality we cannot necessarily see with our eyes. May it be so. Amen.
 Walter Brueggemann, A Way Other than Our Own: Devotions for Lent. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017) p.60-61.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning, Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
5 March 2023
By a show of hands, how many of us are fully comfortable with the term, “Born again?” Some of us have come from evangelical traditions in which being born again is normative. Second question: How many of you have ever been accosted by someone who has asked if you have been “born again?” Final question: How many of you have somewhat negative feelings about the term, “born again?”
The New Revised Standard Version translates this phrase from the Greek as “born from above,” which may sound different to our ears because lacks the familiar ring of “born again.” The NRSV also offers a second translation: “born anew,” but both of these translations would cause Nicodemus to ask how one could be born after growing older or by entering a mother’s womb a second time.
Do you ever wonder about that: why the term makes you feel uncomfortable or leaves you scratching your head? Maybe you think you aren’t “that kind of Christian” or maybe you felt judged or maybe you just find it to be a mysterious term.
When I was a freshman at UC Santa Barbara, I had a roommate named Conal. He was a nice enough guy who had grown up in an Episcopal church in the Central Valley of California but had found a home in a Pentecostal church in Santa Barbara. At that time in my life, I was struggling with the church of my youth, as many young adults do. Conal asked me if I had been born again (I answered “no”) and if I would like to join him at his church on a Sunday morning (I answered “no thank you”). Conal asked again… and again… and again, and I finally relented. This was an entirely different church experience for me, a nice New England Congregational boy. It was as if going into the worship space, these folks started acting in a very peculiar way, almost as if they had taken some kind of drug that kicked in at the beginning of the service and ended when they left the building. And I had never before felt so uncomfortable and out of place. I kept wanting to run screaming from the building, but I was too polite and stuck it out until the end of the service. That was the last time I darkened the doorstep of any church for years.
In those days it almost felt as if being “born again” was a litmus test for being a “real” Christian. It is almost as if being born again was a wall between Christians who considered it central and those who thought it didn’t apply to them. Many of us, then and now, don’t want to be cast in the same light as Jim and Tammy Faye or Jimmy Swaggart or Benny Hinn, all of whom emphasized the importance of being born again. Joel Osteen’s website says, “Pray this aloud: ‘Lord Jesus, I repent of my sins. Come into my heart. Wash me clean. I make you my Lord and Savior, Amen.’ We believe that if you prayed that simple prayer, you have been born again.”
Maybe that is why many progressive Christians feel the need to distance themselves from the concept of being born again. It has a lot of baggage in our culture, which is tragic, because it is such a beautiful way of approaching transformation in our lives. And I’d like to suggest that deep, internal transformation is far more nuanced and that it requires more than repeating a forumulaic prayer.
What if we imagined being born again not as a wall to divide the saved from the damned, but rather as a bridge between old, non-life-giving ways of thinking and new possibilities of reorienting our priorities and our lives? It may be helpful to speak about being “born anew” and if that is still too close, think about it as being “born from above.” And it’s not a one-off: We can be born from above again and again and again.
It’s important to remember the source of this passage. It is from John’s Gospel, which unlike the first three in our Bible, is a mystical text, rather than a document that attempts to convey “an orderly account.” The writer of this gospel wants you to see beyond what is in front of you and use your imagination to envision the realm of the possible. It’s very right-brain and uses heaps of metaphor. In today’s brief scripture, Nicodemus takes a literal approach when Jesus mentions being born anew…how can one re-enter a mother’s womb? Duh…it’s a metaphor for deep transformation! It represents a life-changing process that broadens one’s view and makes new things possible.
When he was here as our Visiting Scholar, John Dominic Crossan used another metaphor to describe this deep transformation. (And if Dom is willing to offer a metaphor, let all those with ears listen!) He said that being born anew is like receiving a heart transplant. You’ve probably seen images of a cardiothoracic surgeon removing the old, diseased heart from a patient and implanting a new, healthy heart, shocking it, and essentially bringing the patient back to life. Dom is not referring to transplanting the beating, pumping muscle in your chest, but rather the sense of deep knowing, feeling, emotion, perception, and motivation that are embodied in the metaphorical heart. What would it look like for us to have a heart transplant in that way? What newness of outlook and life might we expect?
In some 18th century Congregational churches in New England a criterion for membership was a “visible sign” of conversion, evidence that one had been born from above. (That is a bit more nuanced than Joel Osteen’s formula.)
Let me approach it a somewhat different way. What are some of the ways you see folks here at Plymouth or elsewhere showing evidence of transformation or newness of life? What acts of compassion do you see them committing that might convince you that they have reordered the priorities in their lives to put the way of Jesus first? I can share a few. When I see the folks who stay overnight in our church to accompany families experiencing homelessness, I see it as a mark of a transformed life. When I hear of someone commit to teaching Sunday school for an entire year, it shows a transformed soul. When I see people show up for a refugee family or for a Palestinian student and his family, I see people whose lives have been transformed. When I witness extraordinary acts of generosity in our congregation, I see it as less about someone’s ability to give and more about their inclination, regardless of the size of the gift. I see those not as a cause, but as an effect of having had a heart transplant.
I don’t think we can force being born anew. I think we need to be open to the possibility of that transformation and then welcome it when it comes. Some of that involves allowing old certainties and old fears to melt away. And it involves seeking and openness to fresh ways of being in the world. Maybe some of the things we have grasped need to be released. Some of the ways of living or measures of success that we once thought were important can be let go of. And I also think it is something we can ask for in our prayer lives. All our lives have room for transformation.
Here is what one born again Christian, Jimmy Carter, said about his faith: “I have one life and one chance to make it count for something….My faith demands that I do whatever I can, wherever I am, for as long as I can with whatever I have to try and make a difference.” What I’m driving at is that you can be born from above and still be committed to the progressive spirit.
Christians do not have a corner on the market of spiritual transformation, and certainly this transformation of our priorities, our perspectives, and the way we live our lives have precious little to do with saying a formulaic prayer.
Marcus Borg writes, “But rightly understood, being born again is a very rich and comprehensive notion. It is at the very center of the New Testament and the Christian life. We need to reclaim it.”
May we at Plymouth in this season of seeking, open ourselves to the journey of transformation and invite it in.
© 2023 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
 Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith, (San Francisco, HarperSanFrancisco, 2003), p. 105.
First Sunday in Lent, Year A
My Farewell Sunday
Plymouth Congregational, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
This morning our scripture text is a familiar one for the first Sunday in Lent, a story that is in all three of the synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke. We hear from Matthew today who was writing to a Jewish Christian community intent on knowing who Jesus is as the Human One and the Son of God. And we hear language traditional and colloquial to Matthew’s time, “the devil” or “Satan” who “tempts” Jesus to see if he can trip him up and then “angels” who come to minister to him. I did a particular word study of the New Testament Greek to understand these words better. If we can, let’s put aside our preconceived notions of these words, images of anthropomorphic evil with a red body suit and horns, of little white winged cherubs, of traditional good versus evil, one of these must die notions, to hear this text in a new way. I am reading from the Common English Bible and I have used my word study to amplify our understanding of the text.
Then the Spirit led Jesus up into the wilderness so that the [accuser, the slanderer, known colloquially as the devil] might test him. After Jesus had fasted for forty days and forty nights, he was starving. The [slanderer] came to him and said, "Since you are God's Son, command these stones to become bread." Jesus replied, "It's written, People won't live only by bread, but by every word spoken by God." After that the [slanderer] brought him into the holy city and stood him at the highest point of the temple. He said to him, "Since you are God's Son, throw yourself down; for it is written, I will command my angels concerning you, and they will take you up in their hands so that you won't hit your foot on a stone." Jesus replied, "Again it's written, ‘Don't test the Lord your God.’" Then [the slanderer] brought him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. He said, "I'll give you all these if you bow down and worship me." Jesus responded, "Go away, Satan, [you slandering adversary!], because it's written, You will worship the Lord your God and serve only God." The [slanderer] left Jesus, and angels, [messengers of the Holy,] came and took care of him. Bible, Common English. CEB Common English Bible with Apocrypha - eBook [ePub] (Kindle Locations 37952-37964).
In 1979 Bob Dylan came out with a series of songs influenced by his understanding at the time of born-again Christianity. Not traditional praise music as was popular at the time. It was after all Bob Dylan. Though he did not remain a born-again Christian on his faith journey, he wrote some wonderfully pointed lyrics. This one song always comes to me when I hear the story we just read together. It’s titled “Gotta Serve Somebody.”
You may be an ambassador to England or France
You may like to gamble, you might like to dance
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world
You might be a socialite with a long string of pearls
But you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You're gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the Devil or it may be the Lord
But you're gonna have to serve somebody...[full lyrics]
Dylan gives us the clue to Matthew’s story of Jesus in the wilderness with the adversary. When you go off seeking on your journey of faith…. which really we are all doing all the time…. who will you listen to? Who will you trust? Who will you serve? Jesus had just been baptized by John and heard a voice from heaven say, "This is my [Child] whom I dearly love; I find happiness in him." (Matt. 3:17) So after this affirmation, Jesus does something we see him do many times in the gospels, he goes into the wilderness to pray, to seek the Holy, led by the Spirit. And it at just such times for all of us –and so for Jesus – that doubts arise, questions of trust. “Am I really hearing what I think I am hearing? Should I really be doing what I think the Spirit of God is calling me to do? Who am I to think I can do such things, to answer such a call? To even think that God is “speaking” to me?”
If we are seekers of the Holy in any way shape or form, followers of Jesus, we will have times when we wonder about our listening skills. This is what is happening in the wilderness story that we traditionally hear at the beginning of Lent, a time in the church calendar year, set aside for intentional seeking of God. So instead of seeing this story as a battle of superheroes, good versus evil, with one of them getting smote in the end, let’s listen to this story this Lent as a story about listening. It echoes the story of Adam and Eve in the garden naively listening to the serpent, the adversary. They learned that naïve listening has consequences. I have learned that lesson several times over in my life. I bet you may have as well.
In the wilderness, Jesus is supported by a long legacy of listening. He is steeped in the traditions of his family faith, in the teachings of Mary and Joseph and the rabbis of his youth. He is steeped in listening to the teachings of scripture as he answers each of the adversary’s challenges with words from Deuteronomy, teachings Moses gave the people as they entered the Promised Land. “God fed the people with manna in the wilderness and did not let them starve…therefore we know that God’s people do not live by bread alone, but by trust in God.” “Yes, I know God will hold me up and support me, but foolishly testing God by intentionally putting myself in harm’s way is not how I want to be in relationship with God…we are already in a relationship of trust.” Then finally, “Get behind me, Slanderer of God! I do not follow the Holy One for wealth and power, but for faithfulness, forgiveness and love.”
So how are our listening skills as we seek the Holy One this Lent? We, too, hear the voices that distract us from seeking faith, voices that mistrust the ways of God. How will we hone our listening skills? Hold that question as I tell you a bit about how I been honing mine.
Many of you have asked what I will be doing after retirement from parish ministry. I have been training over the last two years to be a spiritual director. As of March 18, I will have completed my training and be officially certified. And I must thank all of you for this opportunity because the continuing education money that Plymouth provides its pastors as part of our call agreements has supported the bulk of my training. You all go with me into my next phase of ministry! But what is a spiritual director? A spiritual director is someone who listens. She accompanies another holy soul on their spiritual journey by listening to their experiences, their questions, their doubts as well as their deep sense of knowing. The person might be Christian or Jewish or Buddhist or another faith, spiritual, but not religious, simply a seeker of the Divine. Through listening and observing, wondering with the directee, a spiritual director is a companion on the journey with some skills to invite deeper contemplation of the journey and deeper listening to the self where the Holy resides. Spiritual directors work one on one with people, in person or now just as commonly on Zoom. And if this process intrigues you, your two pastors after March 1st, Hal and Marta, can help you find a spiritual director. I cannot be that person because of appropriate boundaries. However, being the good listeners that they are, they will help you find the right spiritual director for you!
Now back to our question for today… How will we hone our listening skills this Lent as followers of Jesus? You don’t need two years of intensive training. You – we - have already started! We are here in worship listening to God’s Word in scripture, in music and song, listening to God’s presence in our lives in prayer [and the sacrament of communion], in fellowship with one another, in the call to service through our mission activities. How will we deepen our listening to the Holy this Lent?
Here is what I leave with you as I retire from parish ministry and move into the ministry of spiritual direction: Know that the Holy is immanent, right here and right now, with us, inherent in and permanently pervading and sustaining all that is, from the depths of space to the depths of you. We cannot escape God and God’s loving presence. Doubts may arise. Thoughts and decisions that feel like tests or temptations. When this happens, listen to the Holy within you, for you are each made in God’s image. Listen by steeping yourself in what truly sustains you, not just entertains you. What sustains you, nature, solitude and silence, prayer, reading, conversation with those you trust to listen with you to the Holy. Seeking you will find listening. Listening you will find direction and you will know who you serve. We cannot escape serving someone, as Bob Dylan, reminds us. We cannot escape listening deeply, as Jesus did in the wilderness. We can trust that in all the process of seeking, listening, serving we are held by the immanent, all-pervading love of God. I will be listening with you…even if from a distance. However, we will still be connected by that invisible string that is God’s immanent and loving presence.
Blessings and love and prayers for you, my beloved family of faith at Plymouth. Amen.
©The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson, 2023 and beyond. May be reprinted only with permission.
Sabbath as Perspective
2 of 2 in a series on Sabbath, related to Luke 12:13 – 21
Sabbath time is different in its awareness and valuing of time, the blessing of now, the focus on non-commercial relationship, and an appreciation of kairos.
Someone from the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”
Jesus said to him, “Man, who appointed me as judge or referee between you and your brother?”
Then Jesus said to them, “Watch out! Guard yourself against all kinds of greed. After all, one’s life isn’t determined by one’s possessions, even when someone is very wealthy.”
Then Jesus told them a parable: “A certain rich man’s land produced a bountiful crop. He said to himself, What will I do? I have no place to store my harvest! Then he thought, Here’s what I’ll do. I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones. That’s where I’ll store all my grain and goods. I’ll say to myself, You have stored up plenty of goods, enough for several years. Take it easy! Eat, drink, and enjoy yourself. But God said to him, ‘Fool, tonight you will die. Now who will get the things you have prepared for yourself?’ This is the way it will be for those who hoard things for themselves and aren’t rich toward God.”
For the Word in Scripture,
For the Word among us,
For the word within us,
Thanks be to God.
Fill in the blank: Time is _____. (money)
Not if you were W.K. Kellogg in 1930. It was then that he decided his cereal factory would move from three 8 hour shifts to four 6 hour shifts. Amidst the Great Depression, immediately there were 30% more jobs available at Kellogg. Kellogg paid his six-hour shift workers for 7 hour shift the first year, and for an 8 hour shift the second. Productivity rose significantly not just from new technology, but from new work incentives and these new hours. When the US Dept of Labor surveyed the workers after a couple of years of these shorter shifts, the workers overwhelmingly preferred the time more than the money they might have made. Nothing could replace the time with family, for taking care of the home, and for leisure and civic activities. Relationships and the freedom of time were more important than money. After the Depression was over, Kellogg workers consistently voted to stay with the six hour shifts for the freedom it provided them. (Not until 1984 did the workforce vote to return to an 8 hour shift.)
Time is NOT money.
In this morning’s story from the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is confronted by a man wanting money from an inheritance. As he so often does, Jesus does not respond with a simple answer or even agree to be in the role he is asked to be in. He chooses instead to tell a parable about a rich man who was having a banner economic year. This man says to himself, ‘I will tear down my barns and get bigger barns to hold it all! I’ll never have to worry or be anxious. I’ll have enough stuff, enough money.’ I think he was saying ‘I’ll be secure.’
But what money and goods can’t buy him is time. His time for death comes and all the money in the world will not give him more time. Jesus follows up this parable in Luke’s Gospel by telling people not to worry about their material security, and that worrying does nothing to make it happen by using the story of the birds and the lilies of the field where neither birds nor lilies worry, yet they seem to do just beautifully. Somehow God and God’s Creation supports them.
A few weeks back I talked of Sabbath and how it is a sacred exhale, like God exhaling on the seventh day. Indeed, we must exhale in order to fully inhale, both are important to the rhythms and cycles that make for vitality.
Likewise, our vitality comes from the perspective that Sabbath time can bring. After that sacred exhale, a different quality of time can be realized where we can appreciate what is truly worthy, what true riches are. An illustration about time can be helpful here. The Gospels and letters we have in what we often call the New Testament were written in Greek. While the English translation can come out the same as simply ‘time’, Greek language can talk of both chronos, measured chronological time on a watch or calendar, and of kairos, or God’s time or sacred time. Kairos doesn’t go in a straight line or at an even pace. Kairos is a time like the seasons, moving in cycles, dependent upon the relation of things to the whole, waiting until the time is fulfilled, until its own conditions have come to be, until it is the ripe and right time. You can sense kairos time by the way something feels, by the length of shadows, or by color and shade, or by how soft or firm a fruit is in one’s hand. Kairos certainly doesn’t respond to our measured schedules or personal plans and wishes. Kairos time certainly cannot be bought.
Jesus says to not hoard things, or to worry or be anxious. Allowing ourselves to be in kairos time of Sabbath means we have faith amidst the present unfolding of things. We rest in God. We let go of production time and getting more done or making it happen. We get out of social media and the news cycle and repetitive cycles of anxiety. Instead, we rest underneath the fruit tree and trust that things will ripen in time. We let go of obsessing about tomorrow’s outcome and let ourselves be held by God in the now, releasing the anxiety and worry of tomorrow. In this sabbath “Kairos” perspective, we remember and live not as chronos and commodity, but as a child of God and as an earth and human community. We remember our relationship to life and each other, grateful and humble. The keeping of Sabbath time, whatever day or time one does that, can bring one into the quality of the Divine perspective, sacred rhythm, and relation to the whole, to what is really important and deeply true from the perspective of Spirit.
This practice helps us resist the cultural flow toward only busy-ness and distraction, toward narrow and limiting frames of reference where we no longer see the forest, but only the trees.
During World War II, the British wanted to know how they were doing in producing enough stuff to fight the war. They decided to measure the sum of all goods and services produced. They called this the ?????. That’s right, the Gross Domestic Product. The U.N. and the rest of the developed world adopted this standard. Whenever we hear on the news that the economy grew by 2% or shrunk, it is this measurement to which they are referring. And we all seem to cheer when it goes up as if this is good for us all. But the GDP doesn’t discriminate between social activities. Indeed, you could make more bombs, or build and staff more prisons, or clean up after disasters, and the GDP would go up. There could be more income equality though the GDP goes up. More is better as far the GDP is concerned and it is only more if it can be measured in money and more stuff in bigger barns. The GDP is not necessarily just, or healthy or, as our story says, "rich toward God."
And what about the things that money can’t buy?
What about the effort of any volunteer or family member who takes the time and energy to care for the home or family member, to help a neighbor, or to serve the community? The GDP won’t recognize this, let alone value it.
Wayne Muller’s book, Sabbath: Restoring the Sacred Rhythm of Rest, references those who bemoan the lost values of our society. Muller notes, “All these ‘lost’ values are human qualities that require time. Honesty, courage, kindness, civility, wisdom, compassion – these can only be nourished in the soil of time and attention, and need experience and practice to come to harvest.”
Keeping Sabbath time means taking the time to honor and nurture these kinds of values. Money is of value and the chronological time that is related to money has its place, but it is keeping Sabbath time that can maintain our perspective, can keep us from forgetting the other kinds of value and time and rhythm that are not as valued by the capitalistic, individualistic, materialistic culture at large. This is Sabbath as perspective, helping remember the whole and what is truly of value in God’s Creation.
As our story suggests, one of the great interrupters of chronos and business as usual is mortality, death. It is on my heart and mind this morning because just last night we helped our 16-year-old cat to take her last breath. With family gathered around and with many tears, we did the right thing to end her suffering and it put us in a different sense of being and time.
And, just as those humans nearing death will say, that transition moment with death near put things in perspective.
Bronnie Ware is an Australian nurse who spent several years working in palliative care, caring for patients in the last 12 weeks of their lives. She put her observations into a book called The Top Five Regrets of the Dying. Ware writes of phenomenal clarity that people gain at the end of their lives.
Here are the top five regrets of the dying, as witnessed by Ware:
1. I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
2. I wish I hadn't worked so hard. Missing their children's youth and their partner's companionship.
3. I wish I'd had the courage to express my feelings.
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier. (They did not realize until the end that happiness is a choice. Old patterns and habits got in the way.)
I invite us all in this Lenten journey to look at our lives and see if there are practices that regularly connect us to what is deeply true so we don’t have these regrets, so we don’t forget what is most important. Jesus called it being rich toward God. This is Sabbath as perspective, practices of sacred exhale and shifting out of our everyday habits of doing. Maybe it is….
I invite us all to enter more deeply a Sabbath time and space, like sitting on a mountaintop vista, where we can see the big picture and wonder, let go of our burdens and trust in the unfolding of this moment (no matter where our lives are), where we can focus on relationship with Creation and with each other, where we can value all those things that money can’t buy and be grateful for the blessing of life.
We can practice being in a Sabbath time that has a taste of God’s time, that has a Sabbath perspective of what is truly rich toward God and is truly life giving.
J.T. comes to Plymouth as an experienced interim pastor, most recently, as Bridge Minister at University Congregational UCC in Seattle. Previously, he served congregations in Denver, Laramie, and Forest Grove, Oregon. Read more
Luke 15.1-3, 11-32
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
One of my favorite seminary professors, Ed Everding, had a wonderful, three-word paradigm for examining a biblical text: SAYS – MEANT – MEANS. And you can do this, too, when you’re reading scripture. SAYS: What do the words on the page actually say? Is the passage a poem, a story, a song, a prophecy, a letter? (The one genre you won’t find anywhere in the Bible is a science textbook.) What kind of language does the writer use? MEANT: What might this text have meant to the people who initially heard it or read it? What sort of message might they have derived in their historical setting? And finally, MEANS: Now, that we know what it says and what it may have meant millennia in the past, what might it mean for us in our setting today? Let’s try it with today’s text.
SAYS: The Parable of the Prodigal Son is one of the best-known stories of Jesus in the Bible. Even people who have never stepped foot in a church may know this one. Obviously, it’s a parable, which plunks down a story and provokes the listener to wonder what other meaning is there. It’s important to look at the words on the page and perhaps look at different translations if you aren’t a linguistic scholar. It’s also important to look at what ISN’T on the page. For instance, in this story, we never hear about the mom. Is she dead? Is she silent?
The other thing missing is the word “prodigal,” which doesn’t appear in the text. In fact, the word “prodigal” never occurs in the Bible, but it has grown up as part of the tradition over the years. The first biblical use in English is a description in the 16th century Geneva Bible, which is the English translation used by the Pilgrims of Plymouth. The meaning of “prodigal” is oftentimes thought of in a pejorative sense of being wasteful and excessive. But the Oxford English Dictionary also offers another definition: someone or something that “has, gives, or yields something on a lavish scale; generous, copious, abundant.” Now, just hold onto that idea for a few minutes.
MEANT: What do we think the parable meant to those who heard it? One of the obvious meanings is that we are like the son who has gone astray, rejected God, fallen off the tracks, and are trying to find our way home. We may see the father’s reaction as one like God’s: that no matter what we do (wasting our inheritance, living with ritually unclean beasts like swine, rejecting the love we’ve been shown), God always offers us an extravagant welcome home as a consequence of reconfiguring our minds and our hearts and setting off in a better direction.
I took some of the words for this morning’s prayer of confession from the “Full to the Brim” Lenten resources we’re using, and it clearly cast us in the role of the son who has missed the mark. That is the dominant way the parable has been interpreted, and it’s not wrong. All of us mess up on a regular basis, and it’s important for us to see the errors of our ways and get back on track.
But there was this phrase that I read in our bulletin a few weeks ago, and it really struck me: “a frugal faith.” A frugal faith…it’s not a good thing, is it? Having come from New England, I can assure you that there are plenty of Congregationalists who think that frugality and thrift are biblical virtues that should be lived out every day. Surprisingly, there really is nothing about frugality in the Bible. There is one reference to scarcity in Deuteronomy, but it is usually referred to as a counterpoise to God’s abundance. Is that surprising to you? Didn’t you think that the injunction to be frugal was part of our faith? I wonder if we’ve allowed millennia of cultural build-up about our fear of scarcity to shade the ways we view our faith.
That’s not all: In the New Revised Standard Version, there are 79 references to abundance starting in Genesis and ending in Jude.
MEANS: What are some of the meanings of this parable that might serve us today? Is there a character you identify with in the parable? Someone whose experience and outlook resonates with you? To be sure, we can still see ourselves in the role of the younger brother who has gone astray, or we can see ourselves as the resentful older brother who has done all the right things, but who isn’t celebrated by their father…nobody killed a fatted calf for him!
I think sometimes we let ourselves off the hook by playing small and saying, “I’m a sinner and much like the younger brother,” though may very well be true. I know there are times when I need to ask for forgiveness and promise to try and transform my behavior and outlook. Even though we’re a pretty neat bunch of people, all of have done things we regret and want to be forgiven for and to change.
What if we saw ourselves in the role of the father? What if we could become people whose first response is to extend grace and abundance? What if we could be people who are more than willing to forgive wrongdoing when the offender expresses contrition and comes home? What would it take for us to have that kind of faith-in-action? How might that change our lives? Isn’t that part of what we pray for every Sunday: “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” or in John Philip Newell’s words, “Forgive us the falseness of what we have done as we forgive those who are untrue to us.” We’re supposed to emulate God’s grace and forgiveness, in fact we only ask for it to the extent that we have offered it to others. Listen carefully to the Lord’s Prayer.
I want to be clear that I’m not suggesting any of us should be a doormat and get used by a wrongdoer. Good boundaries are important, and no type of abuse is acceptable. That’s not the kind of unhealthy behavior we’re referring to.
For true reconciliation to occur, there needs to be an act of contrition, a commitment that transformation is happening. The younger brother says, “‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son.’” Is that enough? How does the father know that this isn’t an empty promise? Part of the answer is that he doesn’t know for sure: that’s where grace comes in. What is motivating the father is there on the page in black-and-white: “His father saw him and was moved with compassion.” (It’s that weird Greek word, splagknidzthomai, which means gut-wrenching compassion, which is one of the key issues for Jesus, because it is a characteristic of God and ought to be for us.)
Can you think of a time in your life when someone has asked for forgiveness, and you have been unwilling or unable to go forward with that? Can you think of a time when someone was unapologetic or unwilling to change…but you forgave them anyway? I’ve had some big situations like that where I have been wronged by someone close to me and they never owned their part in the situation, and it takes a long, long time to say, “You are forgiven.” And the strange thing is that even if they don’t know you’ve forgiven them, there will be a change, a transformation, in you. There is a burden lifted from your shoulders, a lightness that takes the place of heaviness. You can even feel it in your body, maybe in your shoulders releasing or the pit in your stomach letting go.
I want to get back to that earlier definition of prodigal: “has, gives, or yields something on a lavish scale; generous, copious, abundant.” Is there a character in the parable whose behavior is described that way? It fits in rather well with our Lenten theme of “Filled to the Brim” or even our cup overflowing. When you hear the story of the father killing the fatted calf and ordering his staff to prepare a feast, what do you imagine that looks and sounds and smells like? There is music and dancing! Do you envisage a variety of things on the table? Dates? Fresh bread? Honey? Wine? Veal? Cheese? It’s lavish isn’t it? It’s “generous, copious, abundant,” isn’t it? So, why isn’t this referred to as the Parable of the Prodigal Father?
The father is not someone who lives with frugal faith, is he? (The older brother, who can’t get over his hurt, perhaps does live a frugal faith.) How can the father just release the pain that his son’s departure and living with pigs must undoubtedly have caused? I think the answer is twofold: grace and compassion. The father lives an abundant faith, one filled to the brim with love and the dearness and power of relationship. That’s his primary concern, not keeping score with his son about how much money he blew. An abundant faith doesn’t count the cost. It doesn’t keep a tally in the record book of insults and slights. An abundant faith looks to compassion, love, hope, and grace as the path to God, because these are the characteristics of the One we worship and in whose image we are made.
May we, each of us and all of us together, strive to live abundantly. And may your cup overflow.
© 2022 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact hal at plymouthucc.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
Listen to POdcast here
Part One of series on Sabbath, related to Genesis 2:1-3
Sabbath practice is a core practice of the soul; rest, quiet, slowing, appreciating, blessing, enjoying, celebrating, intentional remembering and focusing, valuing, re-creating
Genesis 2: 1 – 3
Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. And on the seventh day God finished the work that God had done, and God rested on the seventh day from all the work that God had done.
So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that God had done in creation.
For the Word in Scripture,
For the Word among us,
For the Word within us,
Thanks be to God.
Breathe. That’s all.
Let’s all take a breath together: inhale…….exhale.
Two more: inhale………exhale……… inhale……… exhale.
It’s a cycle, isn’t it?
Both parts are important.
On the seventh day, God rested, says the first Creation story. We just heard that in our morning’s Scripture reading. What you didn’t hear was that the Hebrew word for refreshed “vaiynafesh” literally means exhaled. The Hebrew text is saying that on the seventh day God exhaled. Our culture is more inclined to inhaling, to taking in; do more, want more, gain more, be more, take in more information, more data. Being busy can even be seen as a sign of importance.
But are our lives busy or full? Did you know that the Chinese pictograph for ‘busy’ combines heart and killing. The Christian mystic Thomas Merton actually went so far as to equate activism and overwork with violence.
Are our lives structured not just to inhale, but to exhale?
Do we know how to exhale and rest in the arms of God, in the cradle of Creation?
A big part of the first Creation story in Genesis is the teaching of the importance of Sabbath to the Jewish community. It was a characteristic practice to stop all work on Friday at sundown when the traditional Jewish day ends and to enter into Sabbath time until the next sundown. There is a story told of Jesus walking with his disciples on the Sabbath. They plucked some heads of grain to eat. The Pharisees, who tried to protect the people’s piety and to respect Torah law through lots of rules, accused them of sinfully breaking the Sabbath. Jesus’ wise response was that the Sabbath was made for the people, not the people for the Sabbath.
So how can Sabbath as an exhale be for us?
How might we learn from and be served by this teaching?
In the Lenten journey at this church, we have been invited to seek being Full to the Brim. I suggested at our Ash Wednesday service that, like our cycle of breath, we cannot be vital and ‘Filled to the Brim’ without the whole cycle. Likewise, we cannot be whole and vital without rest. And our first sacred story of rest is the Seventh Day story of the first Sabbath, the first great exhale.
I’m not talking about a return to dour restrictive rules of Sabbath that drain life; no dancing or card playing or visiting with people or frolicking and such. I’m talking about the wisdom and the necessity of exhaling in the service of the cycle of life. Go ahead, inhale fully again and then feel a long exhale again. Let it bring you to rest and ever closer to stillness.
Exhale, that’s Sabbath.
It completes the energy cycle of life, re-balances it.
In that first Creation story, we are given an image of the earth as without form and void. It is a kind of chaos that seems empty. Creation happens out of a kind of emptiness. We have to exhale in order to make room for the inhale. The womb has first to be an emptiness in order to be filled with the growing creation of a new life. This emptiness is not so much a denial of life as it is a letting go and a letting be. It is a kind of re-balancing. In our human body, it is a chance to blow off CO2 as a part of our life-giving cycle of respiration, in preparation for bringing in more O2. The first Creation story begins in emptiness and ends in a kind of emptying, a resting, a stillness, an exhale, a Sabbath.
Like a hibernating animal, like a planted bulb or seed in winter, there is an appropriate and necessary time to rest, to lie fallow, to not do.
I was trained as an exercise physiologist after college. It is a basic principle of exercise training that the process of becoming more fit and healthy requires rest after we challenge and exercise the body. It is in the rest time that the rebuilding to a better state happens.
How many of us trust that cycle?
How many of us here are practicing Sabbath rest?
I’m not talking about just laying down on the couch, although that could help. I’m not talking about kicking back and watching TV, although some quality viewing occasionally is renewing. We are invited into a Sabbath space and time that has a sacred intention, a certain quality of delightful exhale that puts us back in touch with the blessedness of Creation, the part of the first Creation story when God says, “It is very good”.
Pastor Jane Anne, before her recent sabbatical suggested that all church committees take time in our Lent season meetings for forms of Sabbath, not doing tangible committee work, but sharing in Bible study, prayer, and connection. She was inspired by the book Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives, in which Wayne Muller suggests we embrace “Sabbath as a way of being in time where we remember who we are, remember what we know, and taste the gifts of spirit and eternity.”
Our worship celebration here could be a Sabbath practice if it helps us remember who we truly are…
as images of God made of the dust of the stars,
as humble mortal beings of made of mud,
as a people called to Grace and to justice,
as part of a wondrous Creation with other wondrous Creatures and features.
Our worship celebration or any practice that we have can be a Sabbath practice if it slows us down enough, focuses us enough toward Spirit that we remember and feel again in our bodies and souls the Grace of God and the gift of life. Any practice could be a Sabbath practice if it truly re-creates in us a sense of rest, renewal, gratitude and connection to the GodMystery. It doesn’t have to be Saturday or Sunday, or a particular ritual or prayer, though those things might help.
In our Gospel stories, we often have Jesus going not toward the people and crowds, but, after his healing work, away from them to solitude and prayer. One way to translate what is translated as prayer is “to come to rest.” Jesus had the practice. He went to rest and renew. (And the disciples came after him, “hunted” him some translations say.)
It’s not that Sabbath time is superior to work time.
It’s that our work time is served by the wisdom and energy of balance and wholeness, Sabbath rest and its intention to be in a different way of being serve balance and wholeness. The spiritual paradox of this Sabbath rest and not doing is that it does create in its own way. The Rabbinic tradition says that on the seventh day God created menuha; tranquility, serenity, peace, and repose. The Jewish tradition also says that on the Sabbath we are given an extra soul, Neshemah Yeterah, a Sabbath soul which more fully appreciates the blessings of life and the fruits of our labor.
How are we nurturing our Sabbath soul?
I watched my Dad for years come home from work, empty his pockets and often change his clothes. It was a simple ritual of shifting from work to home. Now, I love the moment I get home and empty my pockets of keys, cell phone, and all the things I use in the outside world of work and marketplace. I empty my pockets and exhale. This can be a Sabbath moment on any day if I use it to really slow down, breathe, and pause to appreciate the gift of the day, of life, of the whole Mystery.
And even if you are not working outside the home, or are not ‘doing’ as much as you once did, you are not exempt from the call to Sabbath, for it is possible to fill all our not doing time with things that don’t help us exhale, rest, and renew in the whole-making Spirit of the Divine.
That’s because Sabbath is not just a time or even space that we reserve. It is also a quality of presence or consciousness. It is effortless, nourishing rest. It is stillness that can produce a unique kind of renewal and insight. It is an awareness, a return to perspective, a sacred perspective that is about depth and delight, about re-balancing and re-creating, about remembering and feeling that we belong to God, to the Mystery, and that we are to love ourselves, each other, and all Creation.
There is a poem by Jane Kenyon that may help us feel into Sabbath time and space. The poem is related to the traditional Jewish day beginning in the darkness right after sundown.
Let Evening Come
Let the light of late afternoon
shine through chinks in the barn, moving
up the bales as the sun moves down.
Let the cricket take up chafing
as a woman takes up her needles
and her yarn. Let evening come.
Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned
in long grass. Let the stars appear
and the moon disclose her silver horn.
Let the fox go back to its sandy den.
Let the wind die down. Let the shed
go black inside. Let evening come.
To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop
in the oats, to air in the lung
let evening come.
Let it come, as it will, and don't
be afraid. God does not leave us
comfortless, so let evening come.
As we continue in a Lenten journey of becoming Full to the Brim, I invite to us to remember that there are rhythms and cycles that make for life, ultimately, that make possible our coming back to acting for compassion and justice, to acting in service and offering a helping hand. No matter our age or stage, in our lives and in our culture, we can distort those rhythms and cycles and then distort and compromise the life force that sustains us and Creation, not allowing ourselves or the Earth to exhale, to rest, to renew.
God exhaled on the seventh day, resting and savoring the blessing that is Life. Today, the sacred invitation is simple. Remember the Seventh Day and exhale. AMEN
J.T. comes to Plymouth as an experienced interim pastor, most recently, as Bridge Minister at University Congregational UCC in Seattle. Previously, he served congregations in Denver, Laramie, and Forest Grove, Oregon. Read more
March 13, 2022 – 2nd Sunday in Lent
Plymouth Congregational, UCC
Fort Collins, CO
Psalm 27 (NRSV); Triumphant Song of Confidence. Of David.
1 The [the Holy ONE], is my light and my salvation;
whom shall I fear?
The [the Holy ONE], is the stronghold, the refuge, of my life;
of whom shall I be afraid?
2 When evildoers assail me
to devour my flesh--
my adversaries and foes--
they shall stumble and fall.
3 Though an army encamp against me,
my heart shall not fear;
though war rise up against me,
yet I will be confident.
4 One thing I asked of [God]
that will I seek after:
to live in the house of [God]
all the days of my life,
to behold the beauty of [God]
and to inquire in [God’s] temple.
5 For [the Holy ONE] will hide me in shelter in the day of trouble;
[God] will conceal me under the cover of [God’s] tent;
[God] will set me high on a rock.
6 Now my head is lifted up
above my enemies all around me,
and I will offer in [God’s] tent
sacrifices with shouts of joy;
I will sing and make melody to [the Holy ONE].
7 Hear, O[God], when I cry aloud,
be gracious to me and answer me!
8 “Come,” my heart says, “seek[God’s]face!”
Your face, [God], do I seek.
9 Do not hide your face from me.
Do not turn your servant away in anger,
you who have been my help.
Do not cast me off, do not forsake me,
O God of my salvation!
10 If my father and mother forsake me,
[God]will take me up.
11 Teach me your way, O [God],
and lead me on a level path
because of my enemies.
12 Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries,
for false witnesses have risen against me,
and they are breathing out violence.
13 I believe that I shall see the goodness of [the Holy ONE]
in the land of the living.
14 Wait for [God];
be strong, and let your heart take courage;
wait for [God]!
Wait. Wait for God. Some of you may have mastered the art of waiting. However, I think that most of us in the 21st century do not like to wait. We want things now or soon after now! We want communication with our loved ones now! Why don’t they text or call back? We want our fast food now! Deliveries from online orders now! We want news now! We look for the shortest line in the grocery store, the closest parking place to the store entrance. We don’t like to wait. If we have to wait…. well, then we look at what’s on our phone to keep us occupied?
Yet the ancient poet of Psalm 27 says to us, “Wait for God.” Especially when you are stressed and in crisis. When enemies, literal and metaphorical, surround you – enemies who are plotting war and bodily harm, enemies who are seeking to wreck your reputation through false scandal, enemy fears that you hold inside undoing your confidence – when you are set upon by any of these enemies, wait for God! The Hebrew word for “wait” here doesn’t mean just passively stand doing nothing. It means actively hope in God! Look for God! Be gathered in by the Holy ONE who is your light and salvation. Seriously! Of whom should you be afraid? God is with you and on your team.
I know – and the psalmist knew – that this waiting for God is easier said than accomplished. I suspect that is why the psalm was written. I know and the psalmist knew that there are long dark days and nights when it seems that God is not present, when we wonder where in the world is this God of light and salvation?! In our own lives, in the lives of those we love, in the lives of the world. I don’t know about you, but I can barely read the news from Ukraine without asking, where is God? I can barely read the news from Texas and Florida of the opposition against and exclusion of our LGBTQ sisters and brothers and children. Where is God? I barely read the news about the urgency of climate change and destruction. Where is God? I sit with those in our congregation who are going through loss, illness, tragedy and hardship. Where is God? I acknowledge my own grief, fear, challenges within my own heart. Where is God?
This week, I read these ancient words over and over in different translations starting with the King James’s Version I first heard in my childhood, moving through the NRSV, the CEB and finally on to Nan Merrill’s wonderful book of contemporary paraphrase, Psalms for Praying. I was asking, “Where is God?” in these very troubled and frightening times of pandemic, war, climate destruction and personal trouble. After a week of impatiently waiting with this psalm, I was found by God who is always patiently waiting for me, for us, for the world, almost as if hiding in plain sight. God is here. When we think we are waiting for God, God is already waiting for us, with open arms.
The literal encompassing energy of the universe, of all creation, is God, is Love. Love’s energy is always here. In fact, it cannot be destroyed. Our warring ways cannot blot it out of existence. Obscure it from our sight, yes. But not destroy it. So, where do I find God waiting? I find God is waiting, in the care that you, my Plymouth sisters and brothers, extend to one another in times of need. I find God waiting in the joy of our children’s faces, in the thoughtful questions they ask. I find God waiting in the courage of the activists among us who speak out against injustice, who welcome refugees and homeless folks into our community. I find God in the late afternoon light landing golden on the bare winter landscape as I walk the dog. I find God in the prayers you offer as well waiting in my own heart as I feebly pray for peace, as I haltingly write sermons, as I wait with scripture I may first not understand or grasp, may in fact even resist because of my fears that it’s wisdom might not be true. Yet as I surrender, even tentatively, to the wisdom I want to embrace, God shows up.
I read a Facebook post this week from a Plymouth member quoting Eat, Pray, Love author, Elizabeth Gilbert. Gilbert wrote, “You are afraid of surrender because you don’t want to lose control. But you never had control; all you had was anxiety.” Wow, that hits home! How often do we worry and worry, not just over small things, but also over the big, important things, yet things over which we have little or no control? Does our worry, our anxiety, bring us closer to God?
Where is God when we realize we do not have ultimate control over what is happening to our loved ones, to our beloved creation, to everyday people like us whose lives are literally being bombed into smithereens, to everyday people like us who are told they are not valid people because they are not made in the image of the definition of human being as “white, straight, middle to upper class, male?” Where is God when we are held in the grip of these very legitimate concerns?
God is waiting for us in our very fears and anxieties and worries as we surrender our false sense of control over them to God. Not surrender our agency for action, because God will call us to action that we can accomplish. But when we surrender the enemies of fear and crippling anxiety to Love, God is waiting for us. For God is the Love that animates the universe, weaving in and out of all situations, events and people. “The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” the poet, Gerard Manly Hopkins, wrote.[i] And I would add the nurture, the compassion, the care of God, especially when we think all is lost and we can’t take anymore.
At those times, we can say with the ancient psalmist, “Hear me, when I cry aloud, and answer me! Do not hide from me. I am waiting for you to gather me in, to give me hope.” And in the rubble of our pain, God is waiting. When we surrender to the yearning for God’s peace and presence, we find God in unexpected ways, through unexpected people and situations.
How I wish I could tell each and every one of you exactly how you will find God waiting! Yet I cannot deprive you of your journey into Love for the wholeness comes in the journeying. How I wish I could banish the pain and suffering of the world! And of course, I don’t have that kind of power or control. None of us do. I can offer you the presence of Psalm 27. As I close today, I offer it to you in words from Nan Merrill’s Psalms for Praying. Hear and pray and let its yearnings wind through the yearnings of your heart.
Love is my light and my salvation,
Whom shall I fear?
Love is the strength of my life,
Of whom shall I be afraid?
When fears assail me,
rising up to accuse me, each one in turn shall be seen in Love’s light.
Though a multitude of demons
rise up within me,
my heart shall not fear.
Thought doubts and guilt do battle,
Yet shall I remain confident. ….
For I hide in Love’s heart
In the day of trouble, as in a tent in the desert,
away from the noise of my fears. …
Hear, O Beloved, when I cry aloud,
Be gracious and answer me!
You have said, “Seek my face.”
My heart responds,
“Your face, my Beloved, do I seek;
Hide not your face from me.”
Do not turn from me,
you who have been my refuge.
Enfold me in your strong arms,
O Blessed One. ….
You, My Beloved, know me and love me.
Teach me to be love, as You are Love;
Lead me through each fear;
Hold my hand as I walk through
Valleys of doubt each day,
That I may know your peace.
I believe that I shall know the Realm of
Heaven, of Love, here on Earth!
Wait for the Beloved, be strong with courage … ;
Yes! Wait for the Love of your heart![ii]
May it be so! Amen.
©The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson, 2022. May be reprinted with permission only.
[ii] Nan C. Merrill, Psalms for Praying, An Invitation to Wholeness, (Continuum Publishing, NY, NY: 1998, 46-48.)
Associate Minister Jane Anne Ferguson is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. Learn more about Jane Anne here.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning
Plymouth Congregational UCC,
Fort Collins, Colorado
“I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.”
Did you notice anything about Jesus that was missing? How about this one:
“We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one being with the Father; through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from Heaven, was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and did become truly human. For our sake, he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried.
Did you catch what was missing? These ancient creeds have a beginning on the timeline of Jesus’ life (born of the Virgin Mary), and there is an endpoint on his human timeline (crucified, died, buried). The creeds even name the man who did it: Pontius Pilate. But what happened to the intervening 33 years of Jesus’ life?
One of the reasons I wrestle with the creeds of the early church is that they omit what I consider absolutely central in the New Testament and in a living, vital Christian faith: the sometimes scandalous and dangerous life and teachings of Jesus.
The Nicene Creed is the earlier of the two, written by bishops at the Council of Nicaea in 325…all male bishops of course, the council was convened by the emperor in a palace that belonged to Constantine himself, and the bishops were under the guard of Roman soldiers as they tried to define orthodoxy for Constantine.
Think of it – within 300 years the followers of Jesus went from being subversives whose leader was nailed on a cross in the Jewish homeland by Rome to become the official religion of the Roman Empire and whose theology was under the scrutiny of the emperor and his legions. The anti-imperial movement had been coopted into the establishment of the empire itself! Why does this matter? Look at Christian nationalism at home and abroad for the answer.
Perhaps that is the reason the creeds fail to mention the teachings of Jesus: they are too hot to handle, too full of subversive wisdom, too hard to deal with as the establishment rather than the movement.
When I was growing up in a New England Congregational UCC church, we didn’t say the creeds, and we didn’t observe Lent, which was true for our Puritan and Pilgrim forebears. Maybe some people knew that Lent was happening and what it was about, but I certainly didn’t. Growing up in a state with a large Roman Catholic population, I knew lots of kids who went to catechism after school, gave things up for Lent, and the public schools always had fish sticks for hot lunch on Fridays – all of which was mystifying to me. And that is because our Reformed forbears didn’t observe non-biblical holidays, because they wanted to return as closely as possible to the practice of the very early church and to shed centuries of accretion by the Church of Rome.
Lent was not widely observed in the church until Christianity was the established religion of the Empire. What can we learn if we go back before the Council of Nicaea in 325?
In the early Egyptian tradition of the desert mothers and fathers, Lent was an emulation of Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness, a time of testing, a vision quest that Jesus himself experienced. And in the church in Jerusalem, it was a forty-day preparation of initiates for baptism and full inclusion in the church at Easter.
Those are two very different ways to observe the 40 days.
Most of the church forgot (and sometimes still forgets) the life and teachings of Jesus! In just the same way the creeds do, the timing of Lent and Good Friday skip over everything Jesus did between the beginning of his public ministry and the week he died. The forty days that Jesus spent in the wilderness prepared him to lead a new movement and preach the liberating reign of God and heal. If we focus on Jesus’ wilderness experience in Lent, we remember and observe the launch pad from which he set out on his ministry, and that can carry over into our lives today.
Jesus’ time in the wilderness is historically separate and distinct from his crucifixion, thought they bump up next to one another in the liturgical calendar. Jesus was not tempted by Satan in the desert so that he could head right into beautiful downtown Jerusalem to be executed by Rome! He was tempted by Satan so that he could become ready to take on the religious establishment and the Roman Empire itself.
Please don’t misunderstand me: the crucifixion of Jesus is critically important, and we will get there during Holy Week. A profound truth of Jesus’ self-sacrifice is that “No one has greater love than this, but to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
For me, the desert mothers and fathers had a strong point: Lent is about the wilderness pilgrimage of Jesus, being tempted by possessions, power, and fame — and rejecting them all. It is a refining quest in the desert that enables Jesus to emerge in the Galilee and become a teacher, sage, and prophet of God. Immediately after today’s reading, Luke says Jesus “returned to Galilee” and “began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.” And then comes his “inaugural address,” preaching from Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor…release to the captives…recovery of sight to the blind…let the oppressed go free…to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Of course, any self-respecting Roman emperor wouldn’t want that to be the emphasis of the state religion! And Christian nationalists in our country or in Vladimir Putin’s Russia run away from the historical Jesus as well because the liberation he offers is anathema to them.
Then Jesus heals people, calls the twelve disciples, and then preaches the Sermon on the Plain (or the Sermon on the Mount as Matthew calls it), the crystallization of his prophetic teaching, which starts with “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” Why don’t we have a liturgical season dedicated to the Sermon on the Mount or the Beatitudes? Is Jesus still too risky for the church to handle?
So, where does that leave us with Lent? Though you may not guess it, I love Lent as a season when we test our faith and try to go deeper. When we pray a little more, live intentionally a little more, consider our way of life a little more, our faith gains greater depth.
Lent is not simply a 40-day prelude to the crucifixion, but rather a challenge to live faithfully…to try and learn more about the life and teachings of Jesus and then put them into practice in our own lives…which is a lot harder than simply giving up chocolate for 40 days…and it yields longer lasting results.
My challenge to you is this: find a way to go deeper. Observe sabbath time each day, read our Lenten Devotional booklet (available in the Fellowship Hall), have ten minutes or more of silent or walking meditation, read the gospel of Luke that is in our lectionary this season, join the brand new study of Genesis with Art Rooze, or give up chocolate (but remember it’s not just to cut calories). Remember what Jesus said, “I came so that you could have life and have it in abundance.”
May we in this beloved community have the grace to grant ourselves some sabbath space this Lent as we delve deeper into our faith.
© 2022 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact hal at plymouthucc.org for permission to reprint.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC,
About 15 years ago, a member of our congregation had a problem with his heart…the rhythm of his heartbeat wasn’t quite right, and it turned out that the issue had to do with the electrical impulses that were being sent to his heart. And so, he had a process called cardiac ablation, in which his cardiologist inserted a catheter through a vein in his leg and into his heart and used laser light to create scarring on sections of his heart, which fixed the problem. The Sunday he returned to Plymouth, I happened to preach on this text, and he said, “I feel like that passage from Jeremiah was for me: as if I literally had something written on my heart, and only now do I know what the message was: that God’s love is with me wherever I go.”
Of course, the heart is also metaphor for all kinds of things, as it was in Jeremiah’s day as well. I’m quite certain that Jeremiah was not expecting cardiac ablation by God! For us, the heart is metaphorically the center of feeling and emotion. So, God is saying that she will inscribe her covenant at the core of our being – in our center of feeling and emotion – so that we don’t need to think so much about it…we just have a visceral remembrance of it, a bodily knowing of the covenant…sort of like muscle memory that becomes part of what you do.
When we speak “heartstrings,” we’re describing a tug on deepest emotions or affections. We even say, “Oh, that makes my heart ache,” even though there is probably nothing going on with the organ in your chest that is pumping oxygen-rich blood throughout your body.
I would imagine that many of us have experienced some heartache in the wake of Carla’s resignation. Clergy hold a unique relationship with our parishioners…we aren’t cardiologists going in to perform a procedure, and then we leave and maybe see you for a follow-up visit. We develop ongoing relationships, especially when we are able to be face-to-face, that can run deep. On my first day in Colorado, I was at the deathbed of one of our members; those connections sometimes build fast and deep. It is normal to feel confusion, grief, and abandonment in the wake of a pastoral departure. But one of our staff members put it well last week. She shared a story about being on the staff of a Presbyterian church whose senior minister left after being with congregation for 20 years to take a similar position at a larger church. The congregation was grief-stricken and wondered what they had done wrong to bring about their pastor’s departure. Our wise staff colleague told them, “She still loves us, and God still loves us. It was time for her to go to what’s next on her journey. And don’t worry…God will send us someone to guide us next.” I hope that you know that, too: that Carla was crazy about Plymouth and that God loves us and will send us the right person for the next step in our pilgrimage.
We’re also at a point in the church year that is emotionally intense. When was the last time you heard a story in scripture that pulled at your heartstrings or that made your heart ache? If you can’t think of anything off the top of your head, stay tuned, because Holy Week begins next Sunday. From the triumphal parade on Palm Sunday to the night of desertion and betrayal on Maundy Thursday, to the desolation of the cross on Good Friday, there will be plenty of opportunity for deep feeling. And I encourage you to tune into our Maundy Thursday service, which includes the dramatic service of Tenebrae with readings by our ministers and laypeople. On Good Friday, Mark will present a noontime organ concert, and at 7:00 we invite you to tune in for an ecumenical Good Friday service that includes Plymouth and other mainline congregations. It’s moving, not morbid, and if we don’t live through the abandonment of Maundy Thursday and the tragedy of Good Friday, the triumph of Easter loses its meaning.
Another way we speak metaphorically about this thumping muscle in our chests is to know something by heart. Most of us know the Lord’s Prayer by heart…but are there pieces of scripture or other prayers that you know by heart? Perhaps when you were young, you learned the 23rd Psalm by heart. It’s good to have memorized and to deeply know a few things by heart…to have internalized them so deeply that they are with us wherever we go.
When God tells Jeremiah that he will write the law on their hearts, I imagine it means that they will know it by heart, not just through memorization, but by internalizing the new covenant in the core of their being…that it becomes something not just to know, but to feel deeply.
+ + +
Many times, when I am celebrating communion and am serving the wine, I will offer the words “the cup of the new covenant,” which reiterate the words of Jesus at the Last Supper: “This is the cup of the new covenant in my blood.” That language is covenantal and visceral…the lifeblood is pumped by the heart carrying oxygen to all parts of the body.
The prophet Jeremiah talks about this upcoming new covenant with the Hebrew people, but it doesn’t get mentioned again at all in the Hebrew Bible, but we do find the theme getting picked up by the writer of Luke’s gospel and by Paul.
You no doubt recall the covenant God made with Noah, the covenant with Abraham and Sarah, the Sinai Covenant (or the Ten Commandments), and now we have the promise of a new covenant.
But this one is less well defined: it’s not a clear mandate from God that she won’t flood the earth and wipe out humanity again, or that he is going to make great nations from one family, or even a set of codes etched on stone tablets. God is saying, through Jeremiah, that this new covenant is going to be an internal agreement: written on the hearts of God’s people. This new covenant is going to be “an inside job.”
Another really important idea we can derive from Jeremiah’s prophecy is that God can continue to write new things on the hearts of people. And what if God wants to write different teachings on the hearts of different people?
We hem God in and imagine a very small deity when we think that God stopped operating in human history with Noah or Abraham and Sarah or Moses or Jeremiah or even Jesus. Our God is not a small God. You and I are integral parts of God’s unfolding story; we are a continuation of the stories of faith we read about in scripture.
So, what has God written on your heart? And how do you know that it’s God’s handwriting, not the calligraphy of your superego or a message from the culture in which you’ve been raised? I would ask whether there is also deep congruence between what is written on your heart and the life and teachings of Jesus.
You may find that God is calling you to go places you’d rather not be – pushing you beyond the limits of your comfort zone. I am not an activist by nature, but for many years, I have felt obliged to speak out against gun violence. And I will continue to do so, even though it undoubtedly offends some people, and causes others to struggle with what I say.
The way I perceive speaking for peace and justice is as something God has written on my heart. It isn’t an action I always want to take; it’s something I am called to do. And it’s what I think Jesus would be doing – and maybe is doing through us. And I will keep on praying for wisdom and discernment as I try to detect the loops and ligatures of God’s handwriting. And I will continue to voice what I perceive as the way God is leading us as a people.
+ + +
As we walk together toward Holy Week, I would ask you to consider carefully two questions: what has God written on your heart, and how can you tell it’s God’s handwriting?
In The Little Prince, Antoine de St. Exupery writes, “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly.” Perhaps that is why God has written a message on yours.
 Luke 22.20 and I Corinthians 11.25
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.