The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
The family I grew up in was very antiseptic about death. They didn’t like funerals…they preferred memorial services after the fact. They didn’t talk about death, and I’m not sure they really knew how to grieve and mourn. I knew something about that was not healthy, especially after my dad died when I was 25. About ten years later, I was a Stephen Minister at First Congregational UCC in Boulder and a first-year student at Iliff. I was paired with Roy Brammell, a delightful, wise man in his 90s who had been the founding dean of the School of Education at the University of Connecticut fifty years earlier. And when I joined the family to visit Roy’s body at the mortuary, as I saw his tall, thin body, and it struck me that this was an empty shell…that Roy was no longer there. To me, it seemed that the body and the spirit were no longer connected. The senior minister, Bruce MacKenzie, asked if I’d like to help lead Roy’s service, and I said I’d be glad to. For the service, Roy’s adult children collected some of the things he had written over the years on a wide variety of topics like citizenship, education, duty, faith, and so on. They took turns reading these heartfelt pieces Roy had written, and it seemed to bring Roy’s presence back, even to revivify his spirit. (And I started crying in the chancel, and I had no Kleenex…so that was a lesson learned…never lead a memorial service without Kleenex.) Roy’s community of faith gathered to offer thanks to God for his life, to send him off prayerfully, to remember him, to surround is family in a loving embrace, to “rejoice with those who rejoice and to weep with those who weep.”
Everybody has a story, whether we are homemakers or professors or deans or clergy or laborers or physicians or farmers or unemployed or businesspeople. God knows our stories…and I think it is a natural sentiment that we want others to know our story, and I suspect that we all want to be remembered. That’s an important function of a funeral or memorial service, or even of the bronze plaques honoring those buried in our memorial garden at Plymouth. Sometimes when I go by those names at the end of our gallery, I touch the bronze plaques, intentionally recalling the people named there, and I remember their stories and pray for them.
I have a strange affection for old cemeteries, especially those attached to Congregational churches in New England. Looking at the artwork and reading what people chose to record on gravestones makes me curious about the stories of the people they commemorate. One of my favorite cemeteries is at First Congregational Church in Kittery Point, Maine, where I served as the sabbatical interim minister during the summer when I was in seminary. It’s a beautiful location on the shore, overlooking the harbor where the Piscataqua River flows past Portsmouth, New Hampshire into the Atlantic Ocean. I did some gravestone rubbings when I was there, and one struck me particularly, and I have a rubbing of it hanging in my office. It is the headstone of The Rev. Benjamin Stevens, who lived from 1721 to 1792. Stevens had to walk a fine line during the American Revolution between Tories and Patriots, and in 1776, the wealthiest family in the church, the Pepperells, left Maine for England, never to return. (The church still uses the communion silver and baptismal bowl given by their patriarch Sir William Pepperrell.)
Everyone has a story, and here is what we know of Benjamin Stevens from his gravestone: “In memory of the Rev’d Benjamin Stevens D D Pastor of the First Church in Kittery, who departed this life in the joyful hope of a better, May ye 18th 1791: in the 71st year of his age and 41st of his ministry.
In him, the Gentleman, the Scholar, the grave divine, the chearful Christian, the affectionate, charitable & laborious Pastor, the faithful friend & the tender Parent were happily united.” With that eulogy in stone, Stevens’ story inspires me as a pastor 229 years later.
When Stevens died, a minister from nearby Portsmouth preached at his funeral, and accounts say that Kittery harbor was filled with boats from near and far, and that the crowd overflowed from the meetinghouse.
This is one of the things that churches do: we help to remember the people whom we have loved and who have died. We help to provide a ritual that helps those in grief to have a place to mourn with others, to receive love and support from friends and fellow parishioners, and to be the church for one another. And there is more…we offer prayers for those who have died. We commend their spirits into the arms of God, asking for them to be received “into the company of the saints of light.” Maybe if you’re young or if you’ve never had a brush with death, it may not seem terribly important to you, but when I die, I want someone to pray for me. A funeral or memorial service is more than a celebration of life, it’s also an act of giving thanks to God, who entrusted the gift of life to us.
As a church, we gather on this Sunday every year to name those dear ones who have died since last year at this time. It is a poignant and deeply meaningful rite that we observe. Year after year, we come together to name the names, to recall the people and their stories, to lift them up to God in a spirit of love and remembrance. This is another reason it’s almost impossible to be a Christian without a community around you. Even when we have to wear masks…even when we’ve used more hand gel than we could have imagined using in a lifetime…even when we are worshiping together via Vimeo, even when we can’t give one another a physical hug…we are here for one another not only for ourselves, but as the hands and feet, eyes and ears of Christ in the world today.
“Let love be genuine; … hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection…Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer…extend hospitality to strangers….Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another…and live peaceably with all.” Paul gives us a tall order, but I know that this congregation — even in the midst of a pandemic, even on the cusp of a divisive election — this congregation will be there for one another and for our community. I’ve seen you hold the light for one another when someone is experiencing the shadows of grief and despair. God calls us to be there for each other, and you do that with grace, openness, and generosity of spirit. So, let us enter a time of remembrance for the people we’ve loved and lost these past twelve months. Let us remember their stories, and let us hold one another in our hearts.
© 2020 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.
Carla worked in the corporate world before discerning her call to ministry. She worked in a variety of leadership positions and has experience in business development, human resources and corporate spirituality. Read more
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
1 Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3 And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
Happy Father’s Day to all fathers and father figures, both male and female here today! I am remembering my dad who as many of you know was a storytelling preacher, a professor of Philosophy or religion and a seminary president. He often preached on Romans and memorized many passages from it for his preaching. This passage brings me memories of him. I can hear Dad reading it in my mind. I can hear the rhythm of the cadence and inflection of his voice. And I remember him reading it with such passion. Not being a tall man he would rise up on his toes in excitement as he preached or read scripture, as if he was going to make a basketball goal just as he did in high school when he was captain of the team and they won state. Holding his soft-covered, leather pulpit Bible up in his left hand, he might paraphrase a bit to reiterate his points saying...”Because we are justified by our faith, set right with God, through Jesus and so have access to God’s peace and grace...” As the meaning of the text became more intense he rose higher on his toes reaching the highest point at “and hope does not disappoint us!” Then he would come down and lean in with the punch line, “because God's love has been poured [big pouring motion with his right hand] into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”
This text was not about false, feel good sentiment for Dad. It was not a happy-clappy message. God will make everything fine for us if we just believe in the right way. For Dad, Paul’s message was life-changing news in the midst of the very real lives of the people he was addressing, in the midst of their sorrows and tragedies along with their joys. This message brought ultimate meaning and purpose to his life so he was passionate to share it. I do not remember all of his exegesis. The legacy he left is the memory that my Dad was/is a friend of God. He once told me, shortly after my mom’s death, and after at least 60 years of preaching God’s good news, that when he died his hope was that he would learn to love as God loves.
That’s an aspiration, isn’t it? To learn to love as God loves. I know Dad had glimpsed that in many ways while he was here with us in this life. I trust he is learning it more fully now. And I have to ask myself, do I have this aspiration? What about us here in this faith community? Do we want to learn to love as God loves here in the midst of our lives? Do we want to at least catch glimpses of this selfless loving? And in doing so be friends of God?
In this passage from the letter to the Romans, Paul acknowledges that he and the early Christians lived in very trying times. At times he wrote his letters from prison. They knew the danger of persecution. Yet Paul’s conviction is that God is utterly faithful just as God was to his ancestor, Abraham, and in God’s action in the world through Jesus, as well as the sending of the Holy Spirit. To be justified, to be set right with God through our trust in God, is to know God as Friend.
Paul tells us that even in the midst of suffering we stand in God’s grace and share in God’s peace because God is our faithful friend. Take a moment and ponder this. In the midst of your personal lives, here at Plymouth in our communal life we stand in God’s grace and peace. Because we have been justified, set right with God through our trust. We can rejoice with Paul trusting that God befriends us before we even befriend or trust God back.
We can rejoice with Paul because like him we know the heritage of the Hebrew Scriptures tells of God the Creator and God the Spirit moving across the waters of creation. Because, like Paul, we experience the faithfulness of God in Jesus, the one who lived among us, who was crucified by the sin of the world and yet through whom God conquered death in the resurrection.
The articulation of the doctrine of the Trinity came generations after Paul’s writing. Yet implicit in his testimony here in Romans is the Holy One-in-Three, the Holy Three-in-One, the mystery we name the Trinity. One unified God who has three faces or three windows of revelation into the hugeness, the unfathomable nature of the Divine. Knowing that God is faithful friend simplifies this mysterious and often confusing human-made doctrine of Trinity for me. I think of one of my closest earthly friends and the many different roles she plays in my life, comforter, challenger, care-giver, confronter and I understand the different faces of God as friend.
Paul tells us that to be justified by faith is to be friends with the flow of Love that we know as God, that we envision as the community of the Holy ONE – Earth-maker, the Source and Creator of All, Jesus, the Pain-bearer, who came to share our common lot, who bears with us the weight of this world, and Spirit, who continues the Life-giving movement of hope and deepest joy even in the midst of suffering. In deep friendship with the Holy One-in-Three, we can say confidently and without shallow sentiment that our sufferings can produce endurance and endurance character and character hope, no matter what situations life brings. Then we know in the midst of sorrow or joy the glory of God and we can in the best sense of the word boast of, share joyfully, without arrogance, but with the strength of humility, God’s peace and grace because God’s love has been poured into our hearts.
Sometimes mysteries are best understood through looking at them through the corner of our eyes in story.
On the very real mountain and peninsula named Mt. Athos in northeastern Greece, a place of 20 monastic communities comprising one large Easter Orthodox monastery, there is one monastery that was the smallest of all, the Lesser Monastery of the Holy Trinity. It holds only three monks and one lay porter. It is difficult to get to being high up on a cliff. The path to its door is steep and winding and windy. The small door to the monastery is always open and leads you into a sunny courtyard with plants blooming throughout the year. When a pilgrim enters, the person finds a small bench to sit on. Old Gregorio, the porter, lets the pilgrim sit in silence for a time as he peers through a small window to get a sense of the person. Eventually he emerges to sweep the courtyard and shyly ask the pilgrim questions such as “Where are you from?” Or “How was your journey?” Then he silently slips away and returns with one of the monks.
If he returns with Father Demetrios, the eldest monk, an old man with a long white beard, the monk sits right next to the pilgrim and begins to talk immediately. His voice is rich and deep. His words flow like honey from a comb, words of welcome and wisdom. He always seems to know just how long to talk for when he stops the pilgrim will spill forth their own words of confession, contemplation, of doubt and faith, words coming from the heart and sometimes with tears.
If Old Gregorio brings back Father Iohannes the interaction is very different. Father Iohannes is a rather round middle-aged monk with curling brown hair and warm eyes. He sits on a chair in the sun, just across from the pilgrim on the bench and looks deep into their eyes before closing his own eyes to sit in the sun in silence. From time to time he might look at them again. The silence is companionable, but it can last all morning...even into the afternoon. The pilgrim is always the one to break it, finally pouring forth their story. In the end Father Iohannes who has listened intently, gazes at the pilgrim with the deep, silent love of a brother and then simply gives a blessing.
When Old Gregorio bring forth the third monk, the pilgrim encounters a beardless, young man, Father Alexis. He looks lovingly into the face of the pilgrim with the clear, guileless eyes. His own face becomes a mirror for what he sees in the pilgrim’s face – sorrow and grief, frustration or anger, confusion, the joy of learning and asking questions. When he speaks, it is from the deepest yearnings of the pilgrim’s own soul and holds the wisdom of God that is within.
Most pilgrims stay the night and when they leave in the morning they pass by the Icon of the Trinity that is the little monastery’s greatest treasure. In it sit three figures in a loving circle, breaking bread with one another – a white headed, white bearded old man, a curly, brown-haired, smiling man of middle age and a young man with a clear face who seemed to gaze beyond his companions and into the eyes of the beholder. This is the same icon that Old Gregorio says his prayers in front of early each morning, crossing himself three times, praying for the wisdom to direct each pilgrim who might visit that day to the monk the pilgrim’s soul most needs.
For those who seek this smallest of monasteries on Mt. Athos, they would do well to remember it is more a place of heart than of the map. And that the monks and old porter are waiting patiently within a space of prayer and image. And that the Lesser Monastery of the Trinity could just as easily hold an elderly, but energetic housekeeper named Georgiana, an abbess named Mother Demeter who writes beautiful poetry and songs, an earthy, ginger-haired middle aged woman, a healer, named Joanna and a young, lithe woman with blond hair and keen green eyes, a weaver of tapestries who is named Alexis, meaning helper, like her make counterpart.
God comes to us as friend, creating us anew, bearing our pain with us, empowering and emboldening us to act on our deepest loves. This is the mystery of the Trinity. And this is the message of the apostle Paul who believed he was set right by God’s friendship, given God’s peace and grace and love poured into his heart. This is the friendship that empowers all we do in acts of social justice, acts of caring for one another, acts of welcoming the stranger, of feeding the hungry and housing the homeless, acts of worship and fellowship and study and prayer. This friendship empowers ALL we do. Do you accept it? The friendship of this larger than life, abundantly overflowing Holy One-in-Three, Three-in-One God? It is freely given.
Amen and Amen.
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.