The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
What do you think Jesus asked for this Christmas? It probably wasn’t a PlayStation or an X-Box. Seriously, what do you think Jesus wants from you this Christmas?
Micah provides a hint: “What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.” That’s a starting point, but those “requirements” are a fairly low bar, don’t you think? It’s almost as if the prophet is saying, “In order to earn a passing grade, you are required to do justice and so forth.” It seems to me that the incarnate Christ has more to offer and more to ask than just a passing grade.
The writer of the letter to the church in Colossae has a new take on that…that because of the redemptive power of Christ among us, we shed our old way of being and put on a new garment, clothing ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. It’s actually a rather nice New Year metaphor, sloughing off the old clothes we wore in 2021 and instead putting on new garb that reflects the love of Christ.
We’re talking about transformation, that middle part of our Mission Statement that speaks of inviting, transforming, and sending. What would it look like in your own life — with your family, friends, church, community — to live more compassionately and kindly this year? As JT said in a sermon last month, compassion has its English and Latin roots in “to suffer with.” And in the Greek of the New Testament, the verb used for compassion — splagknidzthomai— isn’t just sympathy, it comes from “splagnon,” the Greek word for guts. You feel compassion in your body, in your guts. And it takes emobided courage, or as we say, it takes guts, to be compassionate sometimes.
Last summer in The Atlantic, Arthur Brooks, who teaches at the Kennedy School at Harvard, wrote an article called, “Love Is Medicine for Fear.” He writes, “Life, especially pandemic life, is full of threats and uncertainty. When we feel afraid, bringing more love into our lives can help…. The way to combat fear within ourselves is with its opposite emotion—which is not calmness, or even courage. It’s love.” He writes further that fear emanates primarily from our amygdala, the reptilian brain, that tells us to fight, flee, or freeze and that a neuropeptide, oxytocin, can help inhibit the automatic response of the amygdala, giving our neocortex the chance to catch up and think about the fear before jumping into a response. And you know what helps our brains to release oxytocin? You guessed it! Eye contact and physical contact with those we love. And what have we been missing through these nearly two years of pandemic? Looking one another in the eye, shaking hands, and offering a hug. I know that I miss hugs, and I’ll bet you do to. I remember how touched I was a few years back, when one of our older members told me mine was the only hug she got during the week. It’s heartbreaking to think of what missing those hugs has done to us. Brooks continues, “The math here is easy: More isolation plus more hostility equals less love; less love equals more fear. To reduce fear, we need to bring more love into our lives.”
We all know what Jesus said about loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute you…but are any of us very good at putting it into practice? I know some of you are…I’ve seen you do it. I wonder what it would be like if we each made a commitment, a resolution if you will, that for the next week or the next month, we are going to be intentional about being more loving to our kids, our parents, our partners, our friends, and even our enemies. I wonder if that would help us to release some of the fear that creeps into our hearts. I wonder if looking lovingly into the eyes of someone or giving a big hug to someone in your circle of pandemic intimates would give you an oxytocin boost.
Regardless of how being more loving makes US feel, imagine how it would make those people around us feel. Maybe they would get a little hit of oxytocin that might calm their fears. Maybe they would sense love instead of anxiety. Fear and anxiety are even more virulent than the Omicron variant; they spread from one person to the next even without physical contact or aerosolized breath. But love spreads the same way, from one person to the next. Maybe we could become part of the change we hope to see in the world.
I’d like to invite you to do a short guided meditation with me, only if you wish, and only if you haven’t had a traumatic experience that might return to you. Close your eyes if you wish. Take a couple of slow, deep breaths. Feel the weight of your body being borne in your seat and by your feet on the floor. Imagine yourself sitting next to Jesus, the model of compassion. What fears or anxieties would you like him to bear for you? Is it your own fear of dying or becoming ill? Is it your fear for our planet? Is it another fear? Imagine yourself holding that fear and physically handing it over to Jesus…taking it from your lap and putting it into his. He looks back at you tenderly with his warm, brown eyes. He accepts what you have offered, and it has unburdened you. He asks what you can do to alleviate someone else’s burden. You know someone who needs to feel an expression of your love. It could be a loved one, someone you’re in conflict with, or someone you barely know. Hold a picture of that person in your mind’s eye. Offer them the gift of a loving gaze or a warm hug. They receive it with gratitude and love. They will pass that love along to another, and another, and another. As you begin to come back into this place, feel the warm presence of God within you, and know that it will be with you on every step of your journey. As you are ready, bring your attention into the present moment. And when you are ready, open your eyes.
I started this sermon by asking a question: What do you think Jesus wants for Christmas? How might you answer that question? Do you think he wants your happiness? Your compassion? Your working to forgive? Your being a blessing to one another? Your love? What gift can you offer?
You know the lines from the poet Christina Rosetti, set to music and sung as “In the Bleak Midwinter.” “What can I give him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb. If I were a wise man, I would do my part; Yet what can I give him — give my heart.” Amen.
© 2022 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact email@example.com for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.
Rev. J.T. Smiedendorf
Plymouth Congregational Church UCC
Fort Collins, CO
Colossians 1:15–20 (The Message):
We look at this Son and see the God who cannot be seen. We look at this Son and see God’s original purpose in everything created. For everything, absolutely everything, above and below, visible and invisible, rank after rank after rank of angels—everything got started in Christ and finds its purpose in Christ. Christ was there before any of it came into existence and holds it all together right up to this moment. And when it comes to the church, Christ organizes and holds it together, like a head does a body.
Christ was supreme in the beginning and—leading the resurrection parade—Christ is supreme in the end. From beginning to end Christ is there, towering far above everything, everyone. So spacious is Christ, so expansive, that everything of God finds its proper place in Christ without crowding. Not only that, but all the broken and dislocated pieces of the universe—people and things, animals and atoms—get properly fixed and fit together in vibrant harmonies, all because of Christ’s death, Christ’s blood that poured down from the cross.
For the word of God in Scripture
For the word of God among us
For the word of God within us
Thanks be to God
Pope Pius XI 1925
It was 1925.
Mussolini had been the leader of Italy for three years; and a rabble-rouser named Hitler had been out of jail for a year and his Nazi party was growing in popularity. The world lay in a great Depression: a depression that would become far worse over the next fifteen years.
This is what Pope Pius XI saw in the world.
This is why he inaugurated in 1925 what we now call Reign of Christ Sunday. At that moment, amidst the rise of anxiety and authoritarian figures, the church needed the image of Christ, the wounded and crucified one, the humble servant, the healer, the prophet of peace and justice as the One Seated on the Throne. At that moment, the world of Christian faith and maybe the world as a whole needed a reminder of what a true leader looked like, what power was for, and where it came from.
In such a time, Pope Pius XI amidst all of those new dictators and false values in the world, proclaimed Christ is Sovereign of the universe.
That proclamation can and should be made again today for we too live amidst actual and would be authoritarians seeking worldly power, promising to quench human fear and anxiety by bringing a certain kind of law and order, punishing the troublemakers, those ‘others’ who are the cause of our anxiety and struggles. Humans here and all around the world can still be tempted by the simple solution of blame, separation, and domination.
Powers of death
I believe the apostle Paul would see this movement toward the authoritarian as the powers and principalities of death at work. That is to say, they threaten the very fabric of Life.
Last Sunday, we affirmed Life Over Death, focusing on the acceptance of and wisdom in our mortality. We affirmed that Life (capital L) holds our personal death and even overcomes it beyond the ego self.
This Reign of Christ Sunday, we affirm something even bigger: that the Christ power of Life overcomes the powers and principalities of Death themselves. These powers of Death might use our individual fear of death to control or threaten, but their drive and their consequence is not merely about individual mortality, but about the Death of Life itself.
Operating with dominant power over others and expecting and enforcing the acquiescence and oppression of many including the earth, the powers of Death act against God’s intention for Creation, the very Life principle of interdependence of all, and the soul’s longing for freedom, connection, and wholeness.
Indeed, when these powers reign, there is not the Love that heals and connects, but the fear that divides and the distrust that separates and discourages. When Caesar or Mussolini is on the throne, nuclear winter and ecological collapse are on the horizon, genocide and apartheid (subtle and overt) are nearby, while idols, entertainments, and distractions seek to mute underlying depression and disempowerment. The same will happen when consumerism, militarism, materialism, and tribalism are the reigning powers.
Ernst Becker, Denial of Death, Terror Mgmt Theory
In his Pulitzer Prize winning book of the early 1970s, The Denial of Death, Ernst Becker claims that human civilization is ultimately an elaborate, symbolic defense mechanism against the knowledge of our mortality. Our basic survival instinct, our drive to exist as a distinct person is challenged by the impossibility of bodily immortality. Humanity is able to transcend the dilemma of mortality through an "immortality project" in which one creates or becomes part of something which one feels will be part of something eternal; something that will never die, giving one the feeling that one’s life has meaning; a purpose; significance in the grand scheme of things.
Becker argues that the conflict between immortality projects which contradict each other (particularly in religion) is the wellspring for the destruction and misery in our world caused by wars, bigotry, genocide, racism, nationalism, and so forth, since an immortality project which contradicts others indirectly suggests that the others are wrong.
I don’t think Becker was suggesting that immortality projects are necessarily bad things, but that they are necessary and that they can become bad. Our inability to find peace with the paradox of meaningful life and inevitable death creates trouble. If, in our deep angst about death, our deep identification with our ego drives our immortality project, we may drive that ‘project’ right over someone else. The Nazi’s were a collective expression of the German anxiety of national death, a terror of not surviving the traumatic times of and after World War I and that became a reason to inflict terror. Their immortality project was known as the Third Reich was supposed to last for a thousand years.
The powers and principalities that Paul talks of take over human immortality projects and empower the reign of many anti-Christs known by tragic names in our present and past, names of infamous leaders, and by the names of ‘isms’ that steamrolled over people and planet.
The writer of today’s Scripture poem, the hymn we heard in Colossians proclaims another Sovereign power, another head and heart of all things: The Eternal Sovereign Christ presence that was witnessed and worshipped. In its time, it was practically subversive to claim another Sovereign power other than Caesar and Rome. More importantly, it was subversive to not live the way of Empire where might makes right, where you get yours first and defeat your enemies, and where the desires of the few eclipse the needs of the many and of Creation.
Our invitation of faith on this Reign of Christ Sunday is to do the same, to be subversive in that way, to let Christ Reign. Not Christ as a mascot for our team, for our tribe. Not Christ as figurehead. Not Christ as our Caesar. But the Way of Christ to be our Sovereign authority, the author of our days, the shaper of our ways of being and being together. Our Sovereign is not an emperor, not a CEO or conventional leader,
but a wounded healer,
a prophet of truth to power,
a radically welcoming gatherer of the marginalized,
a devout student of the Great Mystery,
and a peaceful warrior of the soul surrendered to service.
Does this sound all too lofty and pie in the sky? Christ as Sovereign? Maybe.
Faith can seem that way sometimes, a kind of foolishness.
History has much to suggest Caesar and Caesar’s ways and values are still in charge. It doesn’t seem like Christ is Reigning.
And yet the invitation of faith remains, to let the Way of Christ Reign, even to trust that it has already begun.
Listen again to the passage, from the New Revised Standard version,
“God has rescued us from the power of darkness
and transferred us into the realm of the beloved Son,
in whom we have redemption”
Past tense. It has been done.
It is the power of Resurrection where the Way of Life conquers even the empires and ways of death.
Today is the conclusion, the end of our annual cycle of telling the sacred story of Jesus as Christ and of the call of Christ Jesus to the people.
And what an appropriate end toward which we journey; the Reign of Christ in our lives and societies. Let me be clear, not the reign of Christians or of one religion, tribal and dominant. Not a rigid and punishing theocracy. Not a culture of conformity.
Instead, our prayer is like our final song in today’s worship:
Lead on eternal Sovereign, we follow in your way;
Loud rings your cry for justice, your call for peace this day:
Through prayerful preparation, your grace will make us strong,
To carry on the struggle to triumph over wrong.
Lead on eternal Sovereign, we follow not with fear,
For in each human conflict your words of strength we hear:
That when we serve with gladness, you will not let us fall,
Our trust is in your promise that love will conquer all.
Lead on eternal Sovereign, till sin’s fierce war shall cease,
And all your saints together will sing a hymn of peace;
Then all in your dominion will live with hearts set free,
To love and serve each other for all eternity.
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