Rev. Carla Cain began her ministry at Plymouth as a Designated Term Associate Minister (two years) in December 2019. Learn more about Carla here.
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Advent 4: Luke and Matthew.
Mary and Joseph’s story
Today’s Christmas story is a LOVE STORY. The Gospel of Luke tells the Christmas story and the birth of Jesus from Mary’s perspective. The Gospel of Matthew tells the Christmas story tells it from Joseph’s perspective. We are going to approach both today.
These stories are so familiar to us.
Mary was a young woman who in 1st century had no power. Not just because she is young, 12-14, not just because she is pregnant and without a husband, she didn’t have voice or consent over her body during these ancient times – others made those decisions for them.
But this story, gives a young woman choice VOICE to her situation.
We see evidence of this in our scripture today. The Angel of Gabriel tells Mary she will bear a son. Mary says how can this be? I am a virgin. Gabriel reassures her that this is from the Holy Spirit and Mary moves from being powerless to powerful by saying: verse 38 – “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Mary accepted the love of God at that moment.
Joseph’s version of the birth story is covered in Matthew and it goes like this.
Mary and Joseph were engaged to be married. Joseph’s plan, when he found out Mary was with child, was to quietly divorce her because he was a righteous or just man. Joseph was also heard the voice of an angel who said: ‘take Mary as your wife, what is conceived in her is by the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus.”
As a just man he learned to follow the LAW in the Torah but he is torn by the message from the angel. Joseph’s quandary or his choice is this – follow the Torah (the Law) or follow God.
HE was definitely in a much better situation than Mary – simply because of his gender and his family genealogy. But he still had to make a choice because his status was a stake.
Joseph accepted the Love of God – accepted God’s message.
So….Don’t you want to know more? Don’t you want to know more about Mary and who she was and what her relationship with Joseph was like – where did they meet, were they junior high sweethearts or was it an arranged marriage? Don’t you want to reach out and have a conversation with her and find out how she survived these ancient times?
The hopeless romantic in me wanted this sermon to be a love story about Mary and Joseph – and their relationship and their unborn SON.
A romantic tale at Christmas time.
The reality is that this likely would have been scandalous situation! Yet, it is a love story. A love story with God and about God. Mary and Joseph each had their quandary. But as they journeyed to the first Christmas they walked into the unknown – relying on their own love story with God.
The good news is that it’s not just a story of 1st century it’s a story relevant to today. It’s our story.
The birth story or as Luke calls it “Mary’s story” empowers a nation to be pregnant with possibility. To birth hope, peace, joy, and love. It has the power to inspire us to rise above and be our best selves. This story affirms that God is born, conceived, birthed in all kinds of families, all kinds of situations. We don’t have to have status or power or money – we can live in the suburbs, cities, rural towns, single, married, divorced, young, old, doubtful, faithful, questioning, gay, lesbian, bi, trans – hurt, sad, - God meets you where you are.
This story affirms that God comes to all of us. All of us are created by God. To say that this child is from the Holy Spirit is to say that this is a radically new beginning and that it’s God’s doing. This is a love story.
This story says that God favors Mary. A poor, young Jewish girl – this was not typical in a world when this situation could have been very dehumanizing in a time when the rich and powerful were thought to be favored – and most always men.
In this story, Mary was chosen instead of stoned to death and told to not be afraid. And Mary says; let it be with me according to your word. She had a SAY. It favors the unfavored.
It encourages us not to be afraid in the face of a violent and frightening world because God lives in all of us. Not just in Jesus but also the likes of Mary and Joseph. She carried God within her. She birthed God. This is a radical love story. This story disrupts our thinking and asks us to open our hearts to difference, to different people and different situations.
Because God is love and this is a love story. Mary was chosen because she was different. There is no one standard of people or situation that God favors. God favors ALL of us.
We are invited to learn from this story. To invite the love of God into our lives – no matter whom we are or what we experience – whether we feel isolated or broken, joyous or exuberant.
We learn to accept those who might be shamed or ostracized. Those who may be facing a quandary – Law or God. God wants to birth something new in us – hope, peace, joy, and love – in you and me. No matter whom we are! All of us.
How will we respond to this story? How will we respond to the Holy Spirit who dwells not just in Mary and Joseph but in us within us? How will we deal with the impossible? When society says one thing and God says another? Let us look around our world. Where is the possibility?
This story says that nothing is impossible. How will we rewrite our story based on the greatest story ever? If we embody the messages of hope, peace, joy and love – will we accept the challenge of the Holy Spirit?
Will we see the impossible in Mary and Joseph’s situation and make it our story?
Will we extend the meaning of this LOVE STORY in our lives?
I hope so!
Praise be to God! Amen.
Rev. Carla Cain has just begun her ministry at Plymouth as a Designated Term Associate Minister (two years).
I Corinthians 13.1–13
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
If you don’t know anything else that Paul of Tarsus wrote, you likely know this passage from First Corinthians, probably because you’ve heard it at a wedding. And it is a good starting place to understand Paul, who often gets a bum rap in progressive churches. And this passage is also a great way to understand love.
Even though Valentine’s Day is less than two weeks away, I am not going to talk about eros and erotic love this morning…I’m going to talk about agape or self-giving love, which is the variety of love that Paul writes about in this letter.
I remember a conversation with a Swedish friend many years ago in which he sang the praises of English. My friend Tore pointed to the huge vocabulary of our language, which is relatively larger than Swedish, thanks in large part to Celtic Britain being invaded by Romans, Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Danes, Vikings, and Normans, all of whom brought new words to the language we speak today. Yet we have a pretty limited vocabulary of love, at least compared to the Greeks. Yes, we have attraction, affection, and fondness, but they all sound kind of a vague and pasty compared to the eros, philia, and agape of Greek. And for us, love also is shaded by the canopy of the Romantic era, which leaves it soft, squishy, and pale. That isn’t agape. Agape is about going deeper.
Agape is the kind of love needed if you are in Amsterdam in 1943 and you are hiding Jewish children in your attic. Agape is the kind of love needed if you are a part of Christian Peacemaker Teams, putting yourself in harm’s way in a war zone. Agape is the kind of love you need when you are called upon to risk and sacrifice something in order to stand up for your faith. Agape is self-giving love in action; it is risky, it is costly, and it is not for the faint of heart. When John’s gospel quotes Jesus as saying that “no one has greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” [John 15.13], he’s talking about agape…costly, self-sacrificial love.
You and I are seldom called on to really step up and act from a sense of self-giving love for our faith, and we’re unlikely to be imprisoned for it…but that is still a reality for some Christians, like Pastor Jin Mingri, whose church in Beijing was bulldozed by the government, which then sent him a $179,000 demolition bill. In an interview with the Guardian, Jin said, “Of course we’re scared, we’re in China, but we have Jesus.” [The Guardian, 28 Sept. 2018, “We Were Scared, but We Have Jesus: China and its War on Christianity."
At last week’s congregational meeting, we were able to meet openly, elect a slate of folks who agreed to serve on boards and council, pass a budget, and there was no intrusion from the state. We don’t talk very much about “loving Jesus” at Plymouth; and even if we don’t use that phrase, our love of God drives us to do amazing things together, going deeper in our faith, getting out of our comfort zones, making offerings that are costly to us, and living out our faith boldly. People like Bob and Nancy Sturtevant, who established a kindergarten in Ethiopia and just returned from there last week…and you’ll see them giving their time as well as moderator, deacon, sound guy, Interfaith Council rep., and more. That’s what self-sacrificial love looks like.
Glennon Doyle, a UCC member, whose #1 NY Times bestseller is called, Love Warrior, says this: “Life is hard because love is hard, and it’s not because you’re doing everything wrong. Often life is hardest when you are doing everything right.” [From Glennon Doyle’s talk on Work of the People.]
Earlier in First Corinthians, Paul writes, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” [I Cor. 8.1] How do you see that at work in your home or workplace or here at Plymouth? Offering our service, our time, our wealth, our compassion, ourselves to God and one another is an act of self-giving love.
Paul writes of all kinds of wonderful spiritual gifts -– speaking in tongues, prophetic witness, knowledge, faith, hope, giving away everything. And he says that if you have those gifts and graces but you don’t have love, then you are left empty.
Agape, as Paul describes it, is not always easy to put into practice…maybe it is also a variation on what we know as “tough love,” when we have to do uncomfortable things because we see a person bent on self-destruction. Families who do interventions with a member with a substance abuse problem know what agape love looks like. Tough love doesn’t tolerate denial; it “rejoices in the truth.” Maybe agape in this sense blends love and courage.
It takes a lot of love to tell someone things they would rather not hear. My own family did that with my mom to help her acknowledge her alcoholism. It is seldom easy to “speak the truth in love” [Eph. 4] when you have something hard to say…but it can be loving.
So, here is a small dose of truth telling that I hope you will hear in the spirit of agape: I think that we as a congregation have become complacent. We’re a little bit “fat and happy,” and there is nothing recently that seems to drive a sense of urgency. When you walk into Plymouth, you see a comfortable, well-maintained building, and so perhaps you assume that “it’s all good,” that there is no financial need here…that people seem generally happy and affluent. That’s because we have some people who tithe and give sacrificially of their time and money. But this involved segment is pulling more than their weight, and it’s not sustainable. if you missed the Congregational Meeting last Sunday and didn’t read the 2019 budget or annual report…you missed the urgency. Twice last week, I told members of the congregation and staff, “Sorry, we can’t do that, because of budget cuts.”
To those of you who give generously of both your time and your money, thank you! And to those of you have time and wealth to give, please consider this an encouragement, and invitation to step up with a sense of self-giving love.
I appreciate the congregation’s understanding that freezing spending on all mission and programming costs and not being able to fully fund cost-of-living increases for staff was not a nefarious deed on the part of the Budget & Finance Committee or the Leadership Council. All of us together are the ones who decide what Plymouth’s annual income will look like, and we decide it by what we pledge. And to all of you who are giving so generously of time, talent, and money…thank you deeply!
An even bigger issue is that we need to live our faith from a place of God’s abundance and infinite love, rather than from scarcity. Richard Rohr writes, “The flow of grace through us is largely blocked when we are living inside a worldview of scarcity, a feeling that there’s just not enough: enough of God, enough of me, enough food, enough mercy to include and forgive all faults.”
We need everyone –- yes, everyone –- at Plymouth to go deeper in their faith with a sense of agape. That might mean helping with Faith Family Hospitality, teaching Sunday school, working at the reception desk, helping at spring clean-up day, and yes, it means stretching yourself when it comes to financial giving. We also need you to follow through on the commitment you make when you join Plymouth to attend worship more frequently…and also to invite your friends who need the gift of Plymouth.
So, why? Why do we need to kick it up a notch? Is it because we don’t want our church to stagnate? Yeah…in part. Is it because there are people out there trudging through life and not finding much meaning in an endless cycle of work and entertainment? Yeah…that’s part of it, too. Is it because somebody in this town has to stand up for LGBTQ rights and sensible gun laws and immigration reform and people who experience homelessness? Yeah…sure. Those are all perfectly good reasons why we need to lean into our common life at Plymouth. But the dominant reason is that God calls us to live out our agape love for one another, for the world around us, and for God.
I wonder if we sometimes forget that that’s why we are here in the first place. In Deuteronomy, the heart of Jewish faith is expressed this way: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all you soul, and with all your might.” Deut. 6.5] And Jesus adds another: “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” [Mark 12.31]. That’s agape.
I hope that you hear what I am saying as an expression of my love for God, for Plymouth, and for you. I love you all far too much to remain silent.
Love is both a noun and a verb in our language. My prayer for Plymouth this year is that we go deeper and take action to tie our faith together with a sense of God’s love for us and all those we call neighbors.
© 2019 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to reprint.
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.