The Rev. Dr. Mark Lee
For Plymouth Congregational UCC
Pentecost 1A (lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=142)
The one constant in life is change. One of the constant changes we live is that of saying “Good-bye.” Sometimes it is but for a while. Sometimes it is for good. The good-bye I am leaving you with is somewhere in between, for while I am leaving my professional role with this church and going to serve elsewhere on a 2-year contract, Ivan will keep our ranch here and I’ll come back to visit him regularly. After 2 years, only God knows where I’ll be called next. Change, even good change, is often felt as loss, and as I say vaya con Dios it is with a mix of sorrow and hope.
Today’s texts carry that mix. Paul is signing off his last letter to Corinth, a place he might or might not get back to. And Jesus is trying to boil down years of teaching: A Great Commission that refers to his Great Commandment. Make disciples of every kind of people by teaching them to love one another.
Now when Matthew was writing this, it was a victory lap of sorts. His audience read this about 50 years after the fact, and knew how this Commission was well on its way to being fulfilled. A mix of persecution, catastrophic war, and missionary zeal had spread Christian communities through the core parts of the Roman Empire. Christianity was in Rome, the center of the empire, even before Paul writes his letter to the church there around AD 50. Even as all roads led to Rome, so also did all radiate from there. The merchant and military classes were particularly mobile in the ancient world, believers among them. Outside the empire, tradition credits the Ethiopian eunuch of Acts 9 with taking the gospel into Africa, and the apostle Thomas with founding the church in India that carries his name to this day.
Sharing the the Good News is in Christianity’s DNA. The Bible reminds us “Whenever anyone asks you to speak of your hope, be ready to defend it. Yet do this with respectful humility.” [1 Peter 4:15-16] Sometimes we have not done it well, but at its best it is “one beggar telling another where to find bread.” I well remember being enthralled in college by stories from visiting missionaries, and we would make zealous commitments “To go wherever Christ calls us to go.” (All the while hoping that it wasn’t really the ends of the earth, we wanted electricity and running water!)
I was led into parish ministry. There were obstacles, I got tossed out of my first seminary for being gay. But I then met gay Christians who loved and nurtured and healed me, and later found Iliff in Denver that supported my reality and my call. After working in administration for Unitarian and Episcopal churches, I pastored for 15 years in the Metropolitan Community Church, founding congregations in Ft Collins and Cheyenne.
I learned that following God’s call isn’t an exercise in tea-leaf readings, casting fleeces, or trying to see behind the clouds. I don’t think God’s will is this pinpoint thing that God coyly hides from us and if we can’t figure it out our life is ruined. Rather it was listening to my heart, the advice of people I trust, and prayer to nurture the wide context of my faith. Trying some things and failing or succeeding. God treats us as adults, asks us to use our mind, heart and community to weigh options, giving us choices between good things. For myself, I found that those times I forced myself into something with sharp elbows and big ego did not usually turn out well. Instead I learned that finding God’s will is usually unassuming and straightforward.
My call to Plymouth is a perfect example: after Julie left as Director of Christian Ed to pursue her PhD, I was chatting one day in Hal’s office. I’d been on the Adult Ed Committee and then chair for a couple years. I’d been retired on disability due to my health for a while, and that grated on me terribly; I missed active ministry. I’d been exploring the UCC, taken history and polity courses, and was considering transferring my ordination. So Hal asks me, “How would you like to lead an adult education program like Plymouth’s?” Knowing that Plymouth had a policy against hiring members, I had not considered applying for Julie’s job. So I’m wondering, “Where around here has an education program like Plymouth’s?” … “Is there was a good program at like Windsor or Loveland or Greeley?” “No,” Hal said, “I mean here,” and after I got over my surprise, this new call was off and running.
This has been such a wonderful ministry you have let me do. It has been so satisfying to teach, mange, learn and explore with you. No, we did not figure out the Trinity. We did not solve homelessness. We don’t understand the Bible, or Jesus or God. We have yet to build the world of peace and justice and welcome and inclusion and care and love that we know God keeps leading us towards. But we have worked together towards all these things.
I can’t take credit for it all. I built on a long-standing program built by Alice Clark, Julie Mavity-Maddalena and many adult education committees. More deeply, the roots of the program come from this church’s conviction that Christian Formation goes through our entire lives. It isn’t like you go through Sunday school and get confirmed, get a diploma and are done. You’re barely beginning! This church knows that whether a person is 9 or 90 that there is yet more.
Sometimes it is head-learning, a core of information about what it is to be Christian, good info about the Bible and history and tradition. There are skills to be learned to weigh truth claims, consider evidence, and how to read our sacred texts in context. All that information helps shape beliefs, but we have come to understand that beliefs are only tools. Sometimes we build on them, sometimes we change them, some we even have to unlearn (God as old white man or Bible as science book, anyone?) We realize that there is much more to following Christ than beliefs about him. Beliefs are important, but they are not the goal.
It also takes heart-learning. This is a lifelong quest for me, to bridge head and heart, and you have played an important role in helping me with that. So we let ourselves (oh my, the terrible word my therapist keeps taunting me with) – FEEL. We learn how the Spirit molds our heart, how healthy Christian community keeps us grounded, we dare to let ourselves grieve and enjoy and fear and thrill and love. A lot of this is caught rather than taught, but we create good places for it to be caught – frank discussions, walking labyrinths together, doing lectio divina in small groups, listening so that we “bear one another’s burdens.” “How is it with your soul” is a question we should ask each other more often.
All this would be incomplete however if it just left us with heads crammed full of theology and Bible, and hearts all warm with fellowship and the Spirit if it did not get our hands and feet dirty. Some of the best times have been when we have done an educational series on a topic and then it was manifest in the outer world as action. Social action has to be grounded in clear, fact-driven analysis of a situation. And social action has to be sustained by a core of spiritual heart and practice “to keep on keeping on.” You don’t hear the Black Lives Matter protesters singing Justin Bieber. They sing spirituals. Sweet Honey in the Rock’s Ella’s Song, gives us a window into what is sustainable Christian Formation in our time:
“We who believe in freedom cannot rest
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes
“Until the killing of black men, black mothers' sons
Is as important as the killing of white men, white mothers' sons
“That which touches me most
Is that I had a chance to work with people
Passing on to others that which was passed on to me.”1
“A chance to work with people, passing on to others that which has been passed on to me.” There are so many: you who have taught, you who have led discussions, forum moderators, you who tirelessly chased down political candidates for forums, you who reviewed books that you suggested for classes, you who have set up chairs or handled AV, so many of you who have been parts of boards, ministry teams, committees and projects, the scores of people who make the Visiting Scholar program so great (and btw, we have Eric Elnes on tap for November for an online program). Thank you.
So many of you enjoyed my classes and gave me encouragement – and some of you endured my less than stellar projects and gave me loving feedback (anyone remember Kathleen Ray’s ransom atonement book, “Deceiving the Devil”?). I love to teach, you taught me how to do it better, and having eager learners makes it a joy. Thank you.
And for the love and care and guidance you gave me quite outside my professional role, encouraging my continuing education; supporting my pilgrimages; praying me safely home from Jordan; being patient when my health challenges flared up. Thank you. You have made me welcome in your homes, on retreat at LaForet, over a hundred cups of coffee -- you have let me into your lives and hearts. Thank you.
Now God is leading me to a new ministry – as an interim pastor for a medium sized church a half days’ drive away (I can tell you where in another week or so). I am about equal parts excited and terrified. It will take everything I’ve learned in 30 years of ordained ministry – and all you have poured into my mind and heart these past years will so help that church.
So let me end by remembering todays epistle reading:
“Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell. Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss.” (Maybe now that is a virtual kiss!)
“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” [2 Cor. 13:11-13]
Or as I like to say: God loves you today too. Go live accordingly!
from the album “We Are All… Every One of Us” (© 1983).
Listen to it here:
Remembrance, Invitation & direction
Great Thanksgiving & Epiclesis
We give you thanks, O Great and Loving Creator,
For creating a beautiful yet complicated world,
And placing us in it as stewards and participants.
We are glad that you sent Jesus to show us who you are
And how human life can fulfill your quest for justice and peace.
We thank you for gathering us as your church
Bound together always by the Holy Spirit
And connected today by the ingenuity of human technology.
Now Holy God, spread your Spirit upon these gifts of food and drink
Wherever we may be
that they might be for us the presence of the living Christ,
Making us one across time and space.
Spread your Spirit upon us,
so that like these communion elements
We too might be taken, blessed, broken and shared,
so that others might know the blessings
of living in communion with you and one another.
Through Christ, with Christ and in Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
all glory and honor are yours Almighty God, now and forever.
Words of Institution
Welcome to the table
God who hears the cry of the poor and oppressed:
You have always been with us --
When we were slaves in Egypt,
When in exile in Babylon,
When under the power of empires, despots and tyrants,
When divided into factions and set against each other,
You are a God who rescues.
You came to us in Jesus, who blessed the poor and powerless
Walked the way of the Cross – and invites us to join him.
So we lift our hearts to you in these troubled times:
You know the violence that has oppressed our African American neighbors
For hundreds of years.
Violence that changed legal forms
But still kept them scared and poor and hurt and killed.
Now we have seen with our own eyes
How agents of government casually kill them
And then provoke violence and harshly suppress peaceful protest.
We’ve always known these things, but the scales have fallen from our eyes.
We have seen how police supported by our own taxes
Managed by officials we elect
And armed with surplus from our bloated military
Walk the way of empire,
Sometimes benefiting us, and sometimes hurting us,
But consistently keeping black people, brown people, queer people, female people, poor people many other people disadvantaged, silenced and disposable.
We feel sad. We feel angry. We feel confused. We feel guilty. We feel powerless. But we are committed to follow You.
O, that you would tear wide the heavens and come down! Give ear to the chants of your people! Let the outcry come before you!
Save the unjustly imprisoned! Heal the injured! Cast down the mighty from their thrones, and lift up the lowly! Fill the hungry with good things, and make the rich share their hoardings!
Give us eyes to see the truth of our society, and the hearts to bear that truth. Keep those who march safe, and keep us safe when we join them. Give us the sense to listen most to those who suffer the most, and then follow with our voices, wallets and votes. Give us Christ-like courage to use our privilege to dismantle the systems that oppress the many to the benefit of the few, even when we are among the few.
Let us work for your kin-dom, as we pray week after week lifting the prayer Jesus taught us:
Our Father who art in heaven……
God loves you this week too, so go live accordingly.
So go into all the world:
In the love of God who created you,
The peace of Christ who redeemed you,
And the power of the Holy Spirit
Who will sustain you
Through everything. Amen.
This is Mark's final sermon at Plymouth as Dir. of Christian Formation for Adults. Mark brings a passion for Christian education that bears fruit in social justice. He has had a lifelong fascination with theology, with a particular emphasis on how Biblical hermeneutics shape personal and political action. Prior to coming to Plymouth, Mark served as pastor for Metropolitan Community Churches in Fort Collins, Cheyenne, and Rapid City.
Pentecost 16 C
Rev. Dr. Mark Lee
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, CO
It was the worst of times. No, really the worst – it was 586 BC, and the trauma ripples through to this very day. Ask any Jew. Ask any Palestinian. The kingdom of Judah was being swallowed up by the Babylonian Empire. Armies surrounded Jerusalem. The ruling elites were split; some favored submitting to the Babylonians, others wanted to hold out, hoping for Egyptian intervention. People could come and go to a degree, but no equipment, food nor water could enter the city. Would God deliver them? Was this punishment for their sins? Who knew where God was in this? Hope was drying up faster than the last supplies of three year old grain. Hunger was spreading, desperate cannibalism was soon to come. Has your world ever totally fallen apart? Yeah, it was like that.
Jeremiah the prophet had been predicting this day for years. He saw how the royalty – the house of David, who claimed an eternal covenant of God’s favor and were supposed to be God’s good earthly ruler – how they squeezed the common people for every shekel, every bushel of grain, every acre of land. He saw the way the whole country turned from God to idols. Sure, the priests kept the Temple sacrifices running, but the temple had become a symbol of nationalistic political power rather than service to God. So it was easy to work other values into the program. They hadn’t yet heard Jesus’ teaching, “You cannot serve God and Mammon.” Jeremiah loudly pointed out that their path would doom them. His message is not unlike Greta Thunberg’s: staying on the present course will certainly mean disaster.
But people don’t want to hear that, they didn’t want to change. The king put Jeremiah under arrest in the barracks of his bodyguards. This is where this story takes place. Jeremiah hears the crazy, weird, unexpected word of God. Amid the shouts of, “Incoming!” as rocks and arrows came flying over the city walls, amid the scorn of the king and his court, amid his own depression and uncertainty, he thinks he hears God. “Your cousin Hanamel’s field is going into foreclosure. Buy it and bail him out.” Jeremiah was from a suburb of Jerusalem, Anathoth. He was the closest kinsman to Hanamel, and the law of redemption in Deuteronomy gave him the right and obligation to buy the field if Hanamel was in danger of losing it to creditors and it passing out of the family forever. Those of you from farming families might have that sense of ancestral connection to the land; it was built into the system in ancient Israel.
This is not a good deal. Jerusalem and the legal structure of the kingdom are doomed. The Babylonians already occupy Anathoth. Tragically, the modern Palestinian village is practically encircled by the Israeli separation wall. Hanamel’s offer is like buying beachfront property in the Bahamas just as hurricane Dorian was making landfall. Has God ever led you to do something that seemed to make zero sense? What then happened?
Hanamel shows up at Jeremiah’s prison, deed in hand. “And then I knew it was the word of the Lord,” Jeremiah says. That’s sometimes how God’s leading works – we have an intuitive, instinctual sense of something, and then the right person shows up and says the right thing, not knowing what has been going on in our minds and heart. So Jeremiah buys the field. At closing, everyone sees Jeremiah weighing out the silver, signing the deed, witnesses notarizing it, Jeremiah’s secretary Baruch filing one copy publicly and something unusual with another copy: putting another in a clay jar, a jar that can be hidden and preserved --- like the Dead Sea Scrolls were – until after the present disaster has passed.
What does this all mean? As a real estate investment, it’s the worst. The battering rams of the enemy army are at the gates. Really, what is Jeremiah doing? Crazy prophetic action. What is God doing?
Jeremiah lifts up his voice: “The Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, proclaims: Houses, fields and vineyards will again be bought in this land.” “I will bring Israel back to this place to live securely. They will be my people and I will be their God. I will give them one heart and one mind so that they may worship me all the days of their lives, for their own good and for the good of their children after them. I will make an everlasting covenant with them. I will put in their hearts a sense of awe for me so they won’t turn away from me. Fields will be bought, and deeds will be signed, sealed and witnessed. For I will bring them back from their captivity.” (Jer. 32:34-44, summarized).
Hope. Not a cocky-eyed optimism that things will get better. Not a surprising shift in the political scene. Not replacing a bad king with a good king. Hope isn’t denying reality. The Babylonians did destroy the city, temple, monarchy. As the psalmist says, do not hope in princes, in political events, in the invisible hand of the economy, but in God. Hope is rooted in God’s promise, God’s action, God’s love. As the apostle Paul said, “Whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.”
What does hope look like? That’s a great question, a question that invites us to look closely at the world, to become attentive to and aware of the often small sprouts of green breaking through the concrete. What is a situation you know that seems hopeless, yet you have seen people hope in God even in the midst of it?
Among the souvenirs of my trips to Israel and Palestine have been different websites to follow. One is called “The Good Shepherd Collective.” It is a tough page to follow, for practically every day, there is some new encroachment documented. In just the last couple of weeks, an access road from Palestinian villages to their fields has been trenched and destroyed, a shepherd’s goat herd shagged and scattered, homes searched in the middle of the night, water tanks punctured, and I don’t know how many houses demolished. The reasons given are variations on the theme that the Palestinians lack deeds, travel documents or building permits, and that Israeli colonists need land, roads and water. While many places in the world experience oppressive situations, Palestine is one I’ve seen first hand, and weighs on my heart. So I was surprised to read from them:
“In the aftermath of a day like today, when the Israeli military utterly dismantled large sections of the South Hebron Hills, homes were razed, people were beaten and arrested, children traumatized - we are challenged to maintain hope in the face of darkness. People ask us: How do you keep the faith that a better tomorrow is waiting upon the horizon?
“We have enough humility to maintain hope. This is crucial. Far too often, people confuse being hopeful for being naive. We fully understand the matrix of control Israel has methodically constructed around us; after all, it is the corrosive thread shot through the fabric of our lives. But we also understand the movement rising up around us. We see diverse movements of justice joining in solidarity in ways that weren't happening decades ago. Black and brown voices are pushing the plight of Palestinians onto the main stage. Our Jewish friends are taking real risks and making real sacrifices to usher in a new future of liberation. We see all of this because we choose to have hope. We don't let cynicism creep in and masquerade as wisdom. We don't minimize the efforts of those around us. We are courageous enough to have hope. We don't worry that people will think that we are silly or misguided for knowing that a better tomorrow awaits us. Good Shepherd Collective September 11 at 2:29 PM · “
What is your hopeless situation? Political cynicism, overload or despair? Whatever the doctor told you at that visit you had? The negative balance in your checkbook? The cold cup of coffee from the friend who walked away, not crying? Bulldozers flattening your home? Babylonians battering down your gates and burning your temple?
Take courage, God sees you. Grasp your neighbor’s hands, for God will use them to buttress your heart. Don’t curl up in fear, but open yourself to all the tiny signs of God’s faithfulness to you: food on your table, an apology tendered, a gorgeous sunset, a demonstration supporting asylum seekers, a friendly face greeting you in the fellowship hall, a wrong made right, a satisfying grade on an exam, another day of sobriety or a courageous vote. File these signs away, build up a stock in your heart. Share them with others, and file away the ones they share with you. Use them as the building blocks for a future world where peace is normal, caring is public policy, and love binds neighbors and strangers together through God.
Call to worship (from Ps. 91)
Leader: Living in the Most High’s shelter, camping in the Almighty’s shade, I say to the Lord:
People: “You are my refuge, my stronghold! You are my God – the One I trust!”
Leader: God will save you from the hunter’s trap, snares for your soul and body,
People: God’s faithfulness is a protective shield, guarding us like a hen guards her chicks. God will protect us with his feathers, we’ll find refuge under God’s wings.
Leader: Don’t be afraid of terrors at night, or arrows that fly in daylight; monsters that prowl in the dark, or destruction that ravages at noontime.
People: God tells us, “Because you are devoted to me, I’ll rescue you. I’ll protect you, because you honor my name. Whenever you cry out to me, I’ll answer.”
Leader: Hear, O people, the help of our God:
People: “I’ll be with you in troubling times. I’ll save and glorify you, even through your old age. I will forever show you my salvation!”
You have gathered us, gathered us to you, O God, in the midst of a world that seems to have gone crazy. So often, the news of oppression against your children, of destruction of our environment, of corruption in high places, of wars and rumors of war, weighs hard on us. We come to this place seeking quiet from the din; we come to one another seeking a warm heart of comfort; we come to you seeking meaning and hope for the future. Though your grace, grant us peace for today and hope for tomorrow. Amen.
Prayer of thanksgiving and dedication
Thank you, God, for giving us hope when all seems hopeless! Thank you for being faithful even when everyone around falls away! Thank you for being with us in our darkest nights, our deepest pits, our loneliest deserts! Thank you for drawing us together as your people in this time and place. In gratefulness, we offer our selves and our work, trusting you to do amazing things through all of us. Amen.
Mark brings a passion for Christian education that bears fruit in social justice. He has had a lifelong fascination with theology, with a particular emphasis on how Biblical hermeneutics shape personal and political action. Prior to coming to Plymouth, Mark served as pastor for Metropolitan Community Churches in Fort Collins, Cheyenne, and Rapid City. Read more.