Deuteronomy 30.15-20 & Matthew 5.13-20
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning, Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
12 February 2023
People of a certain age will remember a rock musical loosely based on the Gospel of Matthew called Godspell. And whenever I read this section of the Sermon on the Mount, I always think of the song “Light of the World,” that early 70s rock anthem the company sings in Godspell. The great thing about that song is that it got the Sermon on the Mount out into the popular culture of the time. (Have you ever noticed how seldom our more conservative Christian brethren mention the Sermon on the Mount or even quote the historical Jesus?) It’s striking to me that John’s Gospel, the last of the four in our Bible to be written, quotes Jesus as saying, “I am the light of the world,” while Matthew and Luke record Jesus as saying, “You are the light of the world.” Think about the difference for a moment. Will you do something with me? Will you all please say with me, “I am the light of the world!’’ How did that feel? Odd or funny or does it fit like a glove? And now turn to a person next to you or behind you…make sure everyone hears someone else say this to them: “You are the light of the world!” How did that feel to say that to someone? And how did it feel to hear someone say that to you? Is it scary, empowering, daunting?
My friends, we have come through the valley of the shadow of death together these last three years of pandemic. But the light of the world is beginning to re-emerge. So, let’s help to kindle one another’s light and see how bright we can shine.
This week the Church of England finally agreed to perform same-sex unions. And it’s…2023! I was thinking about my experience 17 years ago as a delegate the UCC General Synod where we voted to affirm same-sex marriage. I was a delegate that year, and I quoted John Winthrop’s “City on a Hill” sermon to encourage delegates to vote in favor, which they did. And there was fallout. Churches left the denomination, and the Puerto Rico Conference left the UCC. So, here is what I said in 2005: https://vimeo.com/222746301
We have to make choices that matter and choices that affirm the fullness of life. Not just acknowledging but celebrating the marriage of same-sex couples brings light and life. When the UCC became the first mainline denomination to endorse same-sex marriage, we were letting our light shine, and it continues to illuminate others.
I sometimes see Colorado license plates that say, “Choose life,” and I assume that they are quoting Deuteronomy, where Moses tells the Israelites who were still in Moab and had not yet entered the Promised Land. He lays out two options for them: they can either choose goodness and life by following the ways of God or they can choose death by ignoring divine wisdom and guidance.
There is a larger truth there. Through Moses, God shows us a righteous path, the life-giving way of justice and shalom. Through Jesus, God encourages you and me to follow the path of self-giving love. It’s a costly path that will eventually cause us to abandon the false gods of self-interest, greed, and tribalism (also known as family values) in favor following Jesus in systemic change that supplies daily bread for all, forgives debts, and acknowledges the sovereignty of the Kingdom of God.
“Walking in God’s ways” is the guidepost that Moses sets out in Deuteronomy. And though we don’t talk too much at Plymouth about following the law, we need to be mindful of walking in God’s ways. That can be difficult, because we live in a culture that often presents a different path, telling us that it’s about me and mine, not about us and ours. That we should care about our own family first and then other peoples’ families as an afterthought if at all. That Christian faith is anti-science, politically regressive, and hate-filled. And yet, here we are, trying to walk in God’s ways not so that we earn individual merit that will get us into heaven, but so that we can get beyond the narrow confines of a hyperactively consumerist culture that is destroying humanity and the planet, God’s Creation, along with it. We are trying to follow the path of life and avoid the way that leads toward death.
And there is deep, deep joy in that journey together! I think we have missed out on some of that joy during the pandemic when we were isolated, but I certainly saw glimmers of it when our Beloved Community gathered to meet Reverend Marta and last Sunday to have our first big potluck in three years. (Eating together is an important piece of Christian culture, going right back to our Jewish roots.)
One of the adjectives that I’ve always used when I think about Plymouth is “zesty!” We are not a bland group of people who approach our faith as something flavorless and risk-free and just like every other mainline church. We are folks who don’t mind being trailblazing for others or being willing to step out on issues like LGBTQ issues and gun violence that our faith calls us to act on. We have tended to be the denomination that gets there first. Yet, I’ve worried a bit about whether the isolation of the pandemic years had beaten some of the savor out of us. Damn it, we’re tired. We’re afraid of what future holds. I know we are. Some of us are afraid about the economy. I get it.
Have you felt a little less zesty during the pandemic? Personally, I feel like a lot of my saltiness got leeched out into a brackish swamp of worry and fear and crisis; it has been tough to lead a church through this time. Something is changing. I don’t know if you are starting to sense this, but I am: Some of that savor is beginning to return. We are shifting from a church trying to survive to a church that will thrive.
I’m catching glimpses a profound shift here at Plymouth. I got a lovely email from one of our board chairs on Thursday morning saying what an exciting meeting she had with her board on Wednesday night. It’s a board that has struggled during the pandemic, and there is new life and new light there! They’re getting salty!
Did you get a little taste of saltiness when you hear Marta preach two weeks ago? Did you get a hint of flavor sharing a potluck with your fellow members last week? Yes, we have big financial challenges to face as a congregation, and we together we will walk through those challenges, not blandly, but with flavor!
I don’t know if you listened to the State of the Union address last week, but there was great resonance for me in what the President said: “Two years ago, Covid had shut down, our businesses were closed, our schools were robbed of so much. [And I would add churches.] And today, Covid no longer controls our lives…. As we gather here tonight, we’re writing the next chapter in the great American story, a story of progress and resilience.” That story of progress and resilience is true of Plymouth as well.
But here is what we have going for us: a wisdom tradition and faith that has survived for millennia that guides us on the path toward what is life-giving, that asks each of us individually and all of us together to choose life and not go off-course toward the way of death. We have a savior who has shown us the path of self-giving love and living a life that doesn’t just add joyful seasoning to our own lives, but also provides life-sustaining nutrient savor to the lives of others.
Let’s go for it, friends! Let’s choose life! Let’s get salty! Let’s live the life we were created for as part of this movement.
May it be so! Amen.
© 2023 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.