“The Roots of Righteousness”
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning, Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
26 November 2023
This section of scripture is a favorite among us UCC types and for other mainline Protestants who practice an engaged form of spirituality. And even among UCC congregations, I think that this congregation has a unique charism or gift in putting our faith into action.
I could list any number of ways we together have gone about the business of feeding, clothing, sheltering people. The Homelessness Prevention Initiative, now part of Neighbor-to-Neighbor, had its beginnings at Plymouth when Sister Mary Alice Murphy approached us 20 years ago with the idea. We’ve built interfaith bridges and publicly advocated for those Jesus called “the least of these, who are members of my family.” What is even more important in the long run is the ways we are trying to affect social change so that charity isn’t needed.
And there is a long, long way to go. In the meantime, we wind up doing both things: providing a hand up and also trying to change systems of oppression and injustice. Someone asked recently why we are sending money to the Our Church’s Wider Mission, which is the way we fund not only the conference and national setting of the United Church of Christ, but also where we fund international outreach and mission. From what I understood, the person asking the question suggested that we should be taking care of our own local community, rather than people whom we will never see, let alone meet.
As a people who worship an invisible God, I think we should understand that seeing with our eyes isn’t everything. Just because you don’t SEE it happening doesn’t mean that it ISN’T happening. Globalization and technology move us beyond borders and boundaries. If you don’t have kids and you earn $60,000 a year, your income is in the top one percent globally. So, even if you don’t see kids at a preschool in Ethiopia or a girls’ school in Angola or a primary school in East Jerusalem, they are there and being supported by this congregation. Access to education changes lives and it changes systems. “Blessed are they who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
Part of what I want to say this morning is “thank you.” The people who comprise this congregation have big hearts for mission and outreach. And much of what we do as a congregation doesn’t show up the ledger sheet of our budget, whether it is in the form of Share the Plate, the Mission Marketplace, preventing homelessness, or giving to a Special Offering of the UCC.
The reading from Matthew’s gospel has an eschatological tone, which is a highfalutin theological term that relates to final things at the end of the age. Whenever you hear Matthew talk about “the Son of Man,” it denotes a piece of Jesus’ character related to the final chapter of human existence, the end of the age.
If you believe in the Last Judgment or Hell, this passage might be motivating for you to act in a moral way in this life so that you will be rewarded in the next. Yet, I don’t see God or Jesus as a divine accountant, putting our deeds on one side of some “Eternal Ledger” or another, and allowing those who end life in the black to enter eternal life (they would be the sheep) and those in the red to be consigned to eternal torment (they would be the goats). If you interpret this piece of scripture more literally, that’s fine. As a pastor, I prefer not to use fear as a motivator to encourage leading a moral life.
Orthopraxis is the twin sister of orthodoxy. You know that orthodoxy means holding the right opinion. And we don’t insist on uniformity of belief as a test of faithfulness in this congregation. Orthopraxis means right practice, especially in terms of religious faith. Depending on your religious tradition, orthopraxis might mean lighting candles at dinner on Friday evening and observing the sabbath on Saturday. Or it might mean making a pilgrimage to Mecca and abstaining from pork and alcohol. Or it might mean giving the hungry something to eat or the thirsty something to drink or the naked something to wear or visiting the sick or imprisoned or welcoming the stranger. I think we do have a fairly high bar of orthopraxis in our congregation around social justice issues. My only concern with that is that we don’t fall into the trap of thinking that our good works are all there is to leading a faithful life. We can get rather proud of taking action, and we sometimes set up an impossible standard of trying to save everyone everywhere.
So, for the sake of argument, let’s say that you AREN’T going to be sent to hell in a handbasket because you have not been charitable in your actions. WHY are you engaging in those behaviors? If you don’t fear eternal punishment, why bother to meet the needs of your neighbor around the world or on your doorstep? Stop for a minute. Ask yourself WHY you are doing things like feeding, welcoming, visiting? Is it just because we are “good people” and that’s how “good people” behave? Is it because our politics drive us in the direction of ensuring the needs of the “least of these?”
WHY are you doing something that is costly to you personally?
Part of the reason I’m posing this question is because I have learned so much from people in this congregation about what it means to live a faithful life. This is a really small example, but a long time ago, maybe 18 years ago, I heard one of our members say that they parked further away from the door of the supermarket not so they would get in a few more steps to reach their 10,000-step goal, but because someone else might need a space closer to the door. WHY do people do such things that are inherently at odds with their self-interest? That’s countercultural.
Here’s another example. A couple in our congregation retired and joined the Peace Corps, which is a cool thing in and of itself, and I was surprised that every year they were abroad, they still pledged their financial support of this congregation, even though they weren’t physical present to benefit from their membership. WHY did they do that? WHY were they acting in such a way that it diminished their financial self-interest? That’s countercultural.
Here’s a third example. Last year, a young Palestinian man turned up on our doorstep needing help…with finding a home, with graduate enrollment at CSU, with his visa status, and more. The very first thing that happened when he walked into our doors on a Sunday morning is that Brooklyn and Mike McBride made him a nice, hot caffe latte, sat him down, and sought out Jane Anne to help. He had already been to the Islamic Center and four other Christian churches seeking help but was turned away. This being Plymouth, we found someone who has worked with international students at CSU, another who knew the social services offered in our community, and later a physician who provided immediate care and helped him navigate the US healthcare system. And they built bonds of friendship and relationship that are still intact. Later his wife and son joined him from Jordan, and as you heard last Sunday, Darwish and Aseel have a new daughter named Ayla.
WHY are these Plymouth people doing these things? I also want to ask you to pose this question for yourself. I can’t answer that for you…that’s your job, and I hope you will grapple with it!
I can answer it for myself. Part of my sense of faith and my orthopraxis is to try and follow the way of Jesus as best I can, even when I fail at it. To try and let the Holy Spirit guide me and have her way with me. To trust in the guidance of Jesus and to know that on a deeply physical and spiritual level that his way is the path toward fullness of life not just for me, but for others, too.
I try not to do this – to engage orthopraxis – in a legalistic way. And I try not to judge others who may have a different way of expressing their faith than I do. My best guess in life is that if I know what was motivating Jesus – his WHY – I can use that to help motivate me, too.
Marcus Borg claimed that Jesus overturned the systematized and ritualized purity practice of ancient Israel (which was a form of orthopraxis) and replaced it with a new value: compassion. Compassion is a form of deeply shared feeling and sympathy. It can be self-sacrificial. Compassion sometimes comes at the expense of our own narrow visions of purity, orthodoxy, and orthopraxis.
Following Jesus is not always easy or comfortable, but it is the thing that continues to give my life meaning and purpose. I sense that the God that lures us toward wholeness and compassion also draws us toward unity and lovingkindness. WHY follow that path? Because the other trails don’t seem to lead toward God’s realm.
What is your WHY? I see so many things you do; why are you compelled to act with compassion? WHY might it have been important to your parents or someone you admired as a young person? In considering why you act the way you do, may you be drawn even closer to the living God whom we worship, and in whose realm we live and work.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning, Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
19 November 2023
There is a particular small book that I have bought and given to more people than any other. And it seems to catch the soul of some people. It’s a book called To Bless the Space between Us, and it’s a book of blessings by the late Irish priest and philosopher, John O’Donohue. One person heard me use one of the blessings contained in this book at a graveside service and was so touched by it that he had it engraved on the stone at the entrance to our memorial garden.
Here is what O’Donohue writes about blessing as an act: “In the parched deserts of postmodernity a blessing can be like the discovery of a fresh well. It would be lovely if we could rediscover our power to bless one another. I believe each of us can bless. When a blessing in invoked, it changes the atmosphere. Some of the plenitude flows into our hearts from the invisible neighborhood of loving kindness. In the light and reverence of a blessing, a person or situation becomes illuminated in a completely new way.”
And so today, you have heard Jesus open the Sermon on the Mount with a cycle of blessings! Jesus “changes the atmosphere,” allows “light and reverence” to stream into the souls of his hearers, resulting in spiritual illumination. And this passage has continued to illuminate the followers of Jesus for the ensuing 2,000 years. In fact, many Christians consider the Beatitudes (or Blessings) as the very heart of the gospel, rendering what living life as a Christian entails.
I read a funny-tragic blurb from NPR a few days back. Russell Moore, and Evangelical leader, reports that “Multiple pastors tell me, essentially, the same story about quoting Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount – having someone come up after to say, ‘Where did you get those liberal talking points?’ … And what is alarming to me is that in most of these scenarios, when the pastor would say, ‘I’m literally quoting Jesus Christ,’ the response would be, ‘Yes, but that doesn’t work anymore. That’s weak.’”
Sometimes (perhaps even often) Jesus’ message tends to clash with some of what Americans have come to believe as “gospel truth.” And it isn’t just Christian Nationalists, it’s us, too. The Beatitudes are blessing the weaklings, the underdogs, the losers. That is who Jesus blesses! And it is probably who we should include as we bless others. And it is reassuring to know that when we find ourselves depressed, anxious, running on empty, that Jesus blesses us, too.
It is hard in our day just to be. Just to exist. Just to find moments of inner peace. Mass shootings and violent responses to anyone who looks like the “other” are becoming de rigueur in the media. There is so much noise from the 24-hour news cycle, social media, the conflict-inducing voices on Fox News and MSNBC. American political discourse today is characterized by conflict that generates copious amounts of heat and almost no light.
I was meeting with my therapist a few weeks ago, and she commented that “Anger is the new American drug of choice.” Think about that for a moment. Think how our culture has changed since before the pandemic. Think how you yourself have changed since before the pandemic. “Anger is the new American drug of choice.”
Of course, anger doesn’t stop at our borders. The rise of neo-fascism at home and abroad has been clear for the last five years. And the explosive violence in Israel and Gaza is polarizing and hate-inducing far beyond the Middle East.
Maybe the whole world needs a time out. But since that would be difficult to accomplish, I’m going to invite you into a brief moment of respite. I’ll read you my favorite blessing from John O’Donohue, and it contains an unfamiliar Irish word, currach, which is a small skin and wood-frame boat. I invite your close your eyes, relax you shoulder and neck muscles, feel the weight of your body in your seat and just breathe.
On the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble,
may the clay dance
to balance you....
Read poem here. 
Blessing can be soul-restoring. I hope that you have a sense of that right now. And know that you can come back to that place of quietness and contemplation whenever you need to.
As I was thinking about this sermon, I was rolling around the idea that we need a few new Beatitudes for the times we live in and the challenges we face today. I came up with a long list, but here are three blessings for our day.
1) Blessed are you when you refuse to use violence as a means of addressing another’s violence.
Gandhi said that “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.” And we can see where the Israeli-Gaza war is leading. Last week New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote about the myths that fuel the war: “The first myth is that in the conflict in the Middle East there is right on one side and wrong on the other (even if people disagree about which is which).
“Life isn’t that neat. The tragedy of the Middle East is that this is a clash of right versus right. That does not excuse Hamas’s massacre and savagery or Israel’s leveling of entire neighborhoods in Gaza, but underlying the conflict are certain legitimate aspirations that deserve to be fulfilled.”
Nonviolence on the macro scale can also be used on a personal level. When we disagree with someone, we can discuss things in a calm, adult manner that doesn’t demonize anyone. We don’t have to be oppositional, passive-aggressive, or engage in name-calling. We can speak the truth in love.
A second beatitude: Blessed are you when leave self-interest behind in order to serve others and build community.
We don’t live in a vacuum; we live in a society. This comes as news to many Americans because we are raised to be self-reliant, self-assured, and self-centered. Our culture is diminished by lack of civic engagement and participation, by our unwillingness to look at the good of the whole, rather than our narrow self-interest. “No man is an island, Entire of itself, Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” John Donne wrote that in 1624, and we visualized it anew when astronauts took a photo of earth from space, and we saw the reality that we all share this small, blue marble.
We are all in this together. Thinking more of “we” and less of “me” is a blessing we each can live by.
A third beatitude: Blessed are you when you build bridges instead of erecting walls.
This metaphor has become too close to literal truth on the southern border of the United States. If we say “build a wall” it may be on the border or it may be in a gated community or it may be a way of excluding those who are somehow different than you are. Interpersonally, stonewalling is a way of keeping progress from happening by cutting off improvement and communication.
People who are more interested in finding solutions than harboring resentments build bridges, not walls. They engage with others in order to advance a solution, rather than simply withholding forward movement. Maybe you’ve seen that happen in a personal or a working relationship. It is poisonous to a culture and to the people who form it.
Those are my three Beatitudes, and I offer them to you as a blessing. As you receive communion [share the offering] I invite you to think about what Beatitudes you might offer. What blessing do you have to offer the world?
 “Beannacht” in To Bless the Space between Us, (NY: Convergent, 2008) p. 10
 Nicholas Kristof, “What We Get Wrong about Israel and Gaza,” NY Times, Nov. 25, 2023.
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
Preaching for Reign of Christ Sunday
Rev. Erin Gilmore,
Associate Conference Minister
Rocky Mountain Conference, UCC
Last Sunday of Church Year
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
[Thanksgiving from returning exiles]
1 When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dream.
2 Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then it was said among the nations,
"The LORD has done great things for them."
3 The LORD has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.
4 Restore our fortunes, O LORD,
like the watercourses in the Negeb.
5 May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.
6 Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.
We come together this Sunday at the turning of the year. Today is the last Sunday of the church year. Next week we start Advent, the beginning of the church year. A time of anticipation and waiting in expectation for the feast of Christmas...when God restored the fortunes of humanity by sending God’s own son, Jesus, to live among us as a sign of God’s love. This week is like New Year’s Eve in the liturgical calendar. An appropriate time for looking back and looking forward, for reflecting on the turning spiral of time as we end fall and head toward the winter solstice. The days are shorter, the nights are longer, the trees have shed their leaves, we have put our gardens to bed for the coming months. This week we are in a liminal, in between, fallow time. A turning time.
I have learned to think of the turning of the seasons, the turning of the year more like a spiral than a circle. I know that many ancient cultures, including the ancient Hebrews who gave us this beautiful psalm, thought of time as a circle. There was no end to time. Everything was on the continuum of life’s circle and it was all encompassed by God. What was most important was the quality of life that was happening, the essence, rather than the quantity in straight line chronology.
For me this ancient circle is a little more three dimensional as a spiral. Every time we come round the circle of a day, a week, a month, a year there is growth and learning. We hopefully don’t just repeat the circle again in the very same way.
Psalm 126 teaches us that our relationship with the Holy is a circular or in my view a spiral movement. Traditionally known as a “Song of Ascent” scholars believe song is part of a collection of psalms sung by pilgrims going up to a sacred festival at the temple in Jerusalem. In the first turn of the psalm the pilgrims sing their remembrance of the past work of God in their lives, the ways God has protected and restored them after terrible trials in exile. Taught by the prophets that exile was a consequence of turning away in faithlessness from God’s ways of living, they discovered that even in exile God did not desert them. God kept them, never left them and then restored their fortunes in bringing them home. Literally and in their relationship to God. They rebuilt their homes still weeping for the destruction they had experienced. God sustained them in the rebuilding even as God restored their intimate relationship with God as God’s people. Their sweat and tears yielded to shouts of joy as they entered new homes and a rebuilt temple.
The pilgrims sing this remembrance, this story joyfully as they travel perhaps to the Passover festival in Jerusalem. God did this for them in the past. They know the character of God through God’s actions. Therefore, God can be trusted to do this in the present and in the future. As they moved through the spiral of history and their own life experiences interacting with the Divine their understanding of God grew, their faith in God deepened. What they trusted experientially in the past can inform the present and future.
So “the Lord will again restore our fortunes, like the watercourses in the Negeb”.....the streams that come each year with the rains to water the crops. They may sow in tears....plant seeds in complete and terrifying unknowing of whether the crops will prosper this year.....yet they have hope, they put their trust in God who will bring the joy of harvest. They will come home with sheaves and shouts of joy.
God is with them even as life ebbs and flows in its circular, spiral movement....through pain and suffering....through joy and plenty. These experiences come around again and again. In each turning learning and growth happen that can be trusted in exile and tragedy and in harvest and rejoicing....God has worked in the past....God will work in the future...we will be restored....we are being restored. In Psalm 126, the people of God are literally praying and singing their life experiences.
So here we are at the winding down part of the spiral of our year, this particular liturgical year which began with Advent 2017 and moved into the new calendar year of 2018. And now we prepare for a new Advent that will move us to Christmas and then into 2019. Even in our sunny Colorado climate, this time of year can be a challenging when the dark closes in tighter and tighter and the weather grows cold. We know we are all challenged these days by the state of our country and the state of the world. Many of us feel in exile politically. There is still so much violence and hate, intolerance, mistrust, greed. Is our political system in Washington in exile from the ways of justice? How can God be in the midst of this? Where do we find the Holy? The stock market is turning in concerning ways...is this the beginning of economic instability? Where is God in the midst of this?
Some of us anticipate the holidays with grief and trepidation....there will be an empty place at the holiday table that was filled last year. Or maybe the loved ones can’t get home this year or you can’t get home. Where is the Holy One in the midst of the exile of grief? Is there a new and worrying diagnosis that threatens our emotional equilibrium as well as our health or the health of a loved one? There are “regular” stresses of job and school – and in gearing up for the holidays - that tug at our souls and drain our faith. Do we dare to dream the dreams those ancient Hebrew people who were restored to home from captivity and exile in a foreign land? At this turning time of year do we dare to sing and pray our relationship with God?
Psalm 126 invites us into prayer no matter where we are at this turn of the year, whether we feel in exile or in return to God’s presence of renewal or somewhere in between. There is a simple prayer process I have been re-visiting in my life. It is the process of praying our life experiences. Not sending God a barrage of words about our experiences and how they do or do not measure up to our expectations. (I am very good at that process.) But actually praying our experiences. So I invite you to join me today.
© The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson, 2018. May be reprinted with permission only.
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, Associate, Minister, is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. She is also the writer of sermon-stories.com, a lectionary-based story-commentary series. Learn more about Jane Ann here.
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph
Plymouth Congregational Church UCC of Fort Collins, CO
Noise, Gladness, Singing OR EveryDay Miracles (EDM)
Will you pray with me? May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be good and pleasing to you, O God, our rock, sometimes our rock band soundtrack, and our redeemer. Amen.
One of my favorite parts of attending a Methodist divinity program was the weekly chapel service: the noise, the singing, and the gladness of it all! Now, I was lucky because when I was at Emory it was a high point for that seminary as a place of music and noise. At that time, one of the heads of liturgy and music was Professor Don Saliers. Some of you may know of his daughter Emily, principle member of the Indigo Girls, who would sometimes appear in chapel as a surprise soloist! What made Emory’s chapel services great wasn’t only Rev. Dr. Saliers, Emily Saliers, or even the fact that every other seminarian (except for me) actually could sing really well, but that everyone sang with reckless abandon, conviction, and NOISE! This might have had more to do with Emory being a southern seminary more than a UMC seminary.
It was at my first chapel service that I discovered perhaps some of the theological rationale for this robust singing when I opened to the first pages of the red UMC hymnal and discovered John Wesley’s “Directions for Singing,” (which would be my reading during many a sermon for the next three years), and I have never been quite the same again. How many of you know what I am talking about? There are seven rules in total, and they vary from rules about singing in tune to keeping time and rhythm (basically… pay attention) to others about not turning yourself into a soloist in the midst of a congregational song, but by far my favorite two rules are numbers 3 and 4, which are as follows:
3. Sing All – see that you join the congregation as frequently as you can. Let not a slight degree of weakness or weariness hinder you. If it is a cross to you, take it up and you will find a blessing.
4. Sing Lustily – and with good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half-dead or half-asleep; but lift up your voice with strength. Be no more afraid of your voice now, nor more ashamed of its being heard, than when you sang the songs of Satan.
Setting aside that last part about the songs of Satan, John Wesley has a point! What are we so scared of? Is it the judgment of the person next to us? Is it the judgment of the music director? I promise Mark is nice guy. Is it the judgment of the choir? No, it is usually a lack of confidence in ourselves. Sing with good courage, Plymouth! What I love about what the Methodists have in the front of every hymnal is the reminder of what worship is all about. It is about not being dead (amen/praise God)! It is about being fully alive, embodied, and awake to what God is doing moving in our midst.
As Hal said last week in his sermon, quoting Irenaeus, “The glory of God is in a human being fully alive,” or as Wesley would say… please don’t sing as if you were half dead! Live life abundantly in each moment, especially when we are gathered in worship to praise God. Today’s Psalm is a classic and archetypical “Psalm of Praise!” This is the type of song, I see through reading the national news, that is most difficult for the UCC these days, and it is why we need to talk about it. We cannot because the denomination that only knows lament. Nobody want to join into that.
That is exactly what is happening today with Psalm 100, friends. This is a Psalm, a hymn, and a concert of praise at its very best: noise, gladness, and singing.
Scholars often describe the Psalms as ancient “hymns.” This gives us the unfortunate and false parallel to conveniently and comfortably think that the Psalms were used in a context that looked much like Plymouth. When we quietly sing Psalms or hymns, we feel like we are engaging the ancient. For my generation, and I bemoan this fact because I love hymns, the word hymn is often associated instinctively with something quiet, mumbled, spoken at memorial services and staid and quiet and sad. [Sing slowly while stomping foot in slow rhythm in the pulpit] “I went to the garden alone… while the dew was still on the roses”, and by the time the dew is on the roses you are asleep.
There is no passion, no noise, certainly no praise… and no heart in the word hymn anymore. Now before you jump to conclusions or stop listening, this doesn’t mean we should stop singing hymns (I love them), but we need to reclaim the passion of the Psalmist and bring back the fractured parts of our lives. The Sacred (on Sunday) and the Embodied (the rest of the week) should not be mutually exclusive.
100:1 Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth.
100:2 Worship the LORD with gladness; come into his presence with singing.
100:3 Know that the LORD is God. It is he that made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
100:4 Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise. Give thanks to him, bless his name.
100:5 For the LORD is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations. [even the millennial]
Do we believe this radical statement about the universe and its meaning, church? Or is it just something we say at funerals and in bereavement seminars, church?
Verse 1: The word in Hebrew translated as, “Make a joyful noise,” is used 42 times in the Hebrew Bible. It is translated often as “shout, cry, scream, vocalize, raise a sound, give a blast…have a blast!” We are talking about embodied experience of being Christian not just acting like it on Sunday… and praising a God, a creator, beloved, giver, lover, essence, breath, sustainer, redeemer, healer.
It is completely in line with our Mission Statement here at Plymouth: “It is our mission to worship God [praise God] and help make God’s realm visible in the lives of people, individually and collectively, especially as it is set forth in the life, teachings, death, and living presence of Jesus Christ.”
The Psalms, in their ancient context, would have been used in the cultic, ritual, communal ceremonies and parties of the time that looked very little like our Sunday morning worship. In fact, they would have felt more like Red Rocks Concerts complete with the smoke effects coming from the offerings. Unlike today where we have created an artificial boundary between “high, church, sacred culture” on one hand and “low/ popular/ worldly culture” (a 19th Century Victorian distinction and construct we are still enduring today)—our lives lived on Sunday mornings on one hand and our lives lived singing at the top of our lungs in our cars on the highway on the other hand is false. It makes praise from the gut difficult or awkward. It is this artificial line and compartmentalization (in French Cartesian) that is killing the mainline churches. The worship settings where the Psalms were used were the concerts, the center, the pilgrimage, and the collective hope and aspiration settings—not ethical historical lectures.
Not only do we keep our church to ourselves proudly as Fort Collins’ “best kept secret,” but we also sometimes keep our passion for life and living and thereby our overwhelming praise for a God who makes all things possible a secret from ourselves…on Sundays.
This being the Sunday when Thanksgiving is now past, I want to ask a question. How many of you married, partnered, or have dated people whose families have different Thanksgiving traditions from your own? A ham instead of a turkey or perhaps lasagna? Vegetarian? Pickled watermelon? Stuffing vs. dressing in or outside of the turkey? Should Thanksgiving “dinner” be at lunchtime, midafternoon, or during the normal supper hour at night? Compromise and learning is a big part of being married. Amen? Aside from thanksgiving, this can also happen with music taste. While I am sort of a bluegrass guy, my husband is very much a fan of something called Electronic Dance Music or EDM. This is not a kind of music I have ever had a lot of tolerance for, but it matters a lot to him, so he will come with me to bluegrass concerts and folk music events… and I will go with him to his concerts. I do have a secret weapon though—these are earplugs [show congregation bag of earplugs used for concerts], because I need to hear you for my profession…even if I don’t always want to.
Aside from learning to appreciate a genre outside of my comfort zone, I have also learned something else. My generation has a lot of heart but not a lot of patience for BS! We are good, naturally connected to one another in some obstinate quiet hope. I have witnessed at Red Rocks 1000’s of young adults my age, many your doctors and lawyers and ministers (or soon will be), singing together. The lyrics are often about life, love, meaning, and even heaven. “Don’t forget about a thing called love.” “In your love I’ve built a home.” “We are all we need.” "On my way to heaven.” Like a spy in enemy territory who learns to love, I have witnessed that we in the church are trying to ignore what has happened for too long—cultural surgery of heart and soul, soul and mind, body and essence. We have forgotten, especially in the UCC, the language of praise in the midst of our lament for a world and a realm that we can’t control with even the best intellect. There is so much need for crying out together in joy and passion in this universe.
Radiohead, Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles, Daft Punk, The Colorado Symphony Orchestra, The Grateful Dead, John Denver, U2, Metallica, Rodrigo y Gabriella, Above and Beyond, Pretty Lights, Brandi Carlile, X Ambassadors can be messengers of good and have all played Red Rocks over the years. I think that Red Rocks might be the cultic center of Colorado that Psalm 100 refers to—it binds this place together in ways the churches haven’t managed to do yet.
But there is hope for the church yet to reclaim praise. I see evidence of it still:
When you are at Presbyterian gathering (General Assembly, etc.) and someone comes marching in with bagpipes—the frozen chosen… melt… and are suddenly transformed into embodied praises of God’s goodness over the hills and valleys of Scottish embodied, collective memory.
When you are at Plymouth on Easter morning and we get to the Halleluiah Chorus, we are all moved in the same way, choked-up, spirit-overcome that George the II of England was during its first performance when he was called to stand!
At Worship 3.0 [Sunday evenings] at Plymouth when we sing with passion the songs of Iona or Taizé, releasing our worry and looking up to heaven and singing the Celtic and ancient repetitions.
On this Christmas Eve, when we will sing in darkness… “Silent Night…[PAUSE] Holy Night [PAUSE]”—you know the feeling, right?
We don’t need to imitate the Evangelicals (some of the best and most embodied worship praise I have ever experienced have been Episcopal services) and change anything about our worship service to get there—we just need to remember our mission statement and the intent of the hymns and the Psalms and the call to sing as if we are indeed alive. We should bring our car singing, poetry reading, improve workshop, beer garden, rock concerts, conversations selves… whole selves to worship.
[Minister leaves pulpit and goes to the middle of the congregation asking everyone to please rise, as they are able and willing. Everyone stand looking to the middle, close eyes, singing together at full voice Amazing Grace verses 1, 2, and 3.]
Now, that was Thanksgiving! Amen!
 All of these are part of the Above and Beyond (http://www.aboveandbeyond.nu/about) label. Above and Beyond is a radio show and a collection of DJ’s in the EDM genre. All of this is new to me, and it is like learning a whole different language.
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph ("just Jake"), Associate Minister, came to Plymouth in 2014 having served in the national setting of the UCC on the board of Justice & Witness Ministries, the Coalition for LGBT Concerns, and the Chairperson of the Council for Youth and Young Adult Ministries (CYYAM). Jake has a passion for ecumenical work and has worked in a wide variety of churches and traditions. Read more about him on our staff page.