1 Corinthians 8:1b-3
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
Fort Collins, CO
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
Today our scripture text is quite short. It comes from Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth. He is responding some tangible issues in the young church that is made up of Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor. It seems there is a debate over whether it spiritually harmful to eat meat that has been sacrificed to idols when you visit someone’s house. Paul speaks specifically to the wealthier Gentile Corinthians who feel they have enough excellent spiritual knowledge be able to eat this meat when hosted by pagan friends and not fall back into pagan practices. He bypasses the whole tussle saying, “Your knowledge that this meat won’t hurt you because the idols are false gods that do not exist and you know the One God revealed in Jesus the Christ, is correct and not the point. The point is, will your practices influence those who have been Christ followers a shorter time than you and lead them back into pagan practices? How will your “superior” knowledge affect and shape the community?” Paul says to them that the beloved community, its unity and spiritual nourishment is more important that any special spiritual knowledge that any of us might have. We are all called to love the One God, the real God revealed in the love of Jesus the Christ. Hear this brief text with me.
1 Corinthians 8:1b-3:
We know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge makes people arrogant, but love builds people up. If anyone thinks they know something, they don't yet know as much as they should know. But if someone loves God, then they are known by God. 
We know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge makes people arrogant, but love builds people up. If anyone thinks they know something, they don't yet know as much as they should know. But if someone loves God, then they are known by God.
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!
Do you love God? What does it mean to love God? Do you believe/understand you are known by God? I wrestle with these questions. I share some of my wrestling with you today.
The piece of Gareth Higgin’s book, How Not To Be Afraid: Seven Ways to Live When Everything Seems Terrifying, that stunned me, took my breath away, comes from the chapter in the book titled, “The Fear Of Being Alone.” After telling a childhood story of being lost on a bike ride with his father, not knowing which turn to make to find his dad and feeling quite alone, Gareth writes, “ … true knowing is a two-way street between us and the divine (or higher power, or universe, or God, or whatever may be the best synonym for Love.) The way to overcome the fear of being alone is to find friendship with God and with yourself. Knowing isn’t as valuable or life-giving as being known. Being known is not something to be achieved but experienced.” 
Is Gareth echoing Paul here, knowingly or unknowingly? Paul wrote, “If anyone thinks they know something, they don't yet know as much as they should know. But if someone loves God, then they are known by God.” Knowing is something we seek to achieve. And well we should in many circumstances. Being known, however, … Loving … that is to be experienced, isn’t it?
I like to know things! I even strive to know things. I have strived to be well-educated, to know stuff! I strive to create the best sermons and programming possible to help individuals and church communities on their journeys to being God’s kin-dom on earth, strived to know God so I can share God! However, I had to ask myself as I read Gareth’s words, have I ever known that I am “known,” particularly “known” by God.
Are some of you – out there in the pews, watching at home– “strivers”? Do you strive to know things in life, to know God? Perhaps, you are better than I am at being with God, accepting that God knows and love you? Accepting that you love God?
There is a something about these questions that I am grasping to understand. Like I want to understand/experience Gareth’s words about being known is an experience far greater than knowing, I want to understand/experience Paul’s word’s “if someone loves God, then they are known by God.” These words speak to me in such deep place in me that I can barely articulate what I sense or feel. I thought I desired to know God. It seems I desire to be known by God.
This desire brings me to the question, which may seem odd given the fact I have been in the Christian church all my life, baptized at 10, working in full-time ministry for over 20 years, if I desire to be known by God, then how do I love God? I love my family, I love my friends, I love my husband, I love my dog, I love my church. I know the choices I make because of all this loving. I can feel these loves tangibly inside of me. I love these things without a lot of striving because they are tangible in my life and because they love me back. But how do I love the Mystery that is God? How do I know that I am loving God? How do I do it right so God can know me?
And see - I am back to the striving, striving for knowledge, for achievement, for excellence. I can think and ponder my way into and around this desire to be known by God, to dwell in God’s love, until I have worn myself out. And worn you out as well. What else did Paul say? “If anyone thinks they know something, they don't yet know as much as they should know. [That’s me.] But if someone loves God, then they are known by God.”
Being known by God is about loving, Being in the loves of this world that are real and tangible. Being in the Love that is God that may not be as tangible at first. Paul knew that the wisdom of the Hebrew scriptures commanded us to love God, neighbor and self. And I include creation, all its animate and inanimate beings, as well as humanity, as our neighbors. God, neighbors, self – these three things are the very substance of life and when we intentionally dwell in loving with them we dwell in Love, in the Divine, the Holy, and are somehow, beyond our knowing, we are known.
To be known by God, is a mystery, is a given, is not something we can strive to achieve. It is a relationship experience. It is dwelling in Love. Gareth reminds us that being known by God is not knowledge, but experience. He writes, “And it can be experienced right now through a practice that is often called prayer but is accessible to everyone, no matter your tradition or belief. … Any practice that unfolds love to you can be considered prayer.” He continues, “Prayer is not a chore. Prayer is one way to community. Prayer literally remembers us into the experience of not being alone.”  If we are known by God, we are not alone.
I recently was given a poem by a friend in a contemplative writing group that I am in by a contemporary poet that I did not know, Alfred K. Lamotte. Like Paul’s words, like Gareth’s words, this poet’s words struck me to the core. “Fred”, as his publisher referred to him when I wrote for permission to share this poem, titled his poem, “Gospel.” Remember that “gospel” literally means in New Testament Greek, “good news.” In the poem, which I will conclude with today, I think the poet offers an experience of prayer and of being known. There is one line that gave me pause, “There is no bad news.” How can he write this? I have definitely received news that seemed bad, very bad, at times. I know you have as well. Keep listening, though, to the end of the poem. The next few lines will juxtapose that line with meaning in the surrender of prayer and being known by God. I invite us all into this place of surrender in relationship and being known, even if just for a moment, this day.
"Gospel" by Alfred K. Lamotte
Nothing is wrong.
You have never not been free.
This is the good news.
Every photon of your flesh
Is the boundless sky.
This is the good news.
You lost yourself
In the shadow of beauty
So that beauty might
Find you again
There is no bad news.
From a heartbroken place
Where you’ve breathed out
Everything you carried.
The next breath
Is God’s love. 
So it is. Amen.
©The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, 2021 and beyond. May only be reprinted with permission.
1. Bible, Common English. CEB Common English Bible with Apocrypha - eBook [ePub] (Kindle Locations 44157-44159). Common English Bible. Kindle Edition.
2. Gareth Higgins, How Not To Be Afraid, Seven Ways to Live When Everything Seems Terrifying, (Broadleaf Books, Minneapolis, MN: 2021, 88-89.)
3. Ibid, 89.
4. Alfred K. Lamotte, “Gospel,” Savor Eternity One Moment at a Time,(Saint Julian’s Press, Houston, TX: 2016, 13.)
Associate Minister Jane Anne Ferguson is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. Learn more about Jane Anne here.
Plymouth Congregational Church
Fort Collins, Colorado
Lection: Psalm 46, "Easter, 1916" (Yeats)
Trying to make sense of something that is senseless is not easy. You already know that I think.
When someone we love dies, when our lives are turned upside down by something the doctor tells us, when the phone rings in the middle of the night or when a relationship breaks apart, we are left stunned and at a loss for words.
That’s how I feel when I think about 9/11 and about much that has happened in our world and in this country since 9/11. It’s been twenty years, but for me it seems like yesterday.
As a few of you know, Charnley and I were living in New York City on September 11, 2001. She was working for Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Research Hospital in Human Resources, and I was on the staff of Marble Collegiate Church on 5th Avenue. That day was election day and we voted at P.S. 116 on our block and left one another on the corner of 33rd Street and 3rd Avenue at around 9:00 a.m. She headed north to her office, and I headed cross town to the church at 5th Avenue and 29th Street. What neither of us knew at that moment, was that an airplane had struck the North Tower of the World Trade Center at 8:46 a.m. and that another plane had flown into the South Tower at 9:03 a.m. When I reached Park Avenue South and 32nd Street, people were looking downtown at a large cloud of smoke. A man with a cell phone said that he thought a small sightseeing plane had hit the World Trade Center.
By the time I reached my office, traffic was beginning to stop, and the street was full of people pointing and crying. We hooked up a T.V in the lobby of our office building and for a time just wandered around in shock. I walked over to Sixth Avenue where you could look downtown directly at the Twin Towers. I was there when the South Tower fell, but it was hard to tell what was happening because of the smoke. When word rippled through the crowd, people reacted with shock and anger and tears. People hugged total strangers.
Meanwhile, Charnley’s office closed, and she went back to our apartment with a consultant who had just arrived in the city by train and a young girl from her staff who lived outside of the city and was terrified and had nowhere to go. They turned on the T.V. and heard that blood was needed at the hospital two blocks from our apartment, so they headed over there to give blood. After a short time standing on line, they were turned away because the hospital had figured out by that point that they were probably not going to need blood. Outside of the Emergency room on the street, dozens of doctors and nurses stood waiting with wheelchairs and stretchers for the injured who never came. One of the saddest truths of that day was that almost no one made it to the hospital. People either escaped or they died.
By the time the north tower collapsed, we had organized ourselves at the church to do what we could. We began to list the people we knew might be working in the Twin Towers. We opened the Fifth Avenue doors, we set up land-line phones that people could use, we put together a prayer service for noon and set up a table to give people water. We put on our robes and stood outside in the crowd milling around on the street just talking to people.
The next eight hours are a blur and the next few days are a bigger blur, but by noon, people covered with dust from the building’s collapse began straggling up Fifth Avenue walking home. Many of them stopped to talk. Many of them went into the church just to rest and pray or use the facilities or to make a phone call since nobody’s cell phone was working at that point. And that’s what we did for the next several days, we listened, we tried to give comfort, we worshipped—we rang the bell and the sanctuary would fill beyond capacity with people anxious to sing together and pray, and we stood on the street just talking to people who needed to talk.
Looking back from the perspective of twenty years I want to share a few observations. In the limited time I have, I can only scratch the surface, so these remarks come with an invitation for further conversation with any of you.
Observation one: the human spirit is amazing and when evil runs into the human spirit—which is exactly what the people who hijacked those planes were up to, the human spirit may flounder for a time, but the human spirit comes through because the human spirit is really one with the Divine Spirit. That’s how I understand the fire fighters and other first responders who ran into those buildings. That’s how I make some sense of what happened that day and that’s how I understand and deeply appreciate the scientists and the first responders and all the medical people attempting to help during this time of Pandemic. When we trust one another and the facts, we are all capable of a lot more than we think.
Observation two, when something bad happens, the worst part is the fear. I spent the first few hours after the attack working in the shadow of the Empire State Building. I found myself glancing up afraid that I might catch sight of another plane. Rumors abounded. A mosque in our neighborhood was excavating a basement, were they really planting bombs? Don’t ride the subways, there is an attack scheduled for Friday on the trains. Some of the same conspiracy theories born then are still festering in the dank ignorance that empowers the science deniers and fear mongers today.
One of the biggest challenges in this life is to live by faith and not by fear and that is a decision we are called to make every single day of our lives. Fear is real and worry is fear’s best friend but living by fear is not living—living by faith is living. So many angel messengers appeared that day and in the following days with that message, that I became convinced that the Holy One was speaking.
Observation three, it's OK to be angry—in fact when something like that happens, it is downright healthy to react with anger. There was plenty of anger, but since anger is what flew those planes and killed all those people to begin with, the anger we were feeling in response to the attack needed to become a pathway to healing and not an excuse to join the people who live their lives angry. Whole groups of people in this nation are living that way and that is tragic. Anger is either a dead end with the emphasis on the word ‘dead’ or a passage to the positive. Dare I suggest that being angry enough to do something loving is the way of Jesus?
Observation four, and this relates to the one about anger: there is no future in revenge. I suggested a few days after 9/11 that we offer to send every young person in the Arab world to Harvard rather than seek revenge for what happened. That sounds crazy I know, but it’s hard for me to see what we as a nation achieved with our twenty-year wars that thank God might be ending. One recent study (Watson Institute, Brown University) revealed that these wars have cost $6.4 trillion dollars—a number beyond comprehension, but in simple terms around $20,000 for each person in this nation. And that is not counting the 800,000 human beings lost in the process, including so many of our beloved young people whose service and sacrifice is beyond measuring. I am not a foreign policy expert, and I am not a politician, but I do follow the Jesus who talked about the futility of revenge.
Observation five, bad religion leads to bad politics and crazies are crazies no matter which religion they practice. When human beings confuse their ideas about God and what they believe God might want them to do, with God or when human beings justify what they want to do anyway by appealing to their understanding of religion, you can almost guarantee that the religion being practiced has very little to do with the transcendent reality that is glimpsed from time to time on the far side of our human experience.
God is not what is in the book whether that book is the Bible or the Quran or Vedic scripture. God is love and where love abides God resides, God is forgiveness, and when we forgive and find a way to give, God is hovering near. God is present when humans embrace one another across borders and find ways to break down walls that separate or differentiate based on race, ethnicity, or orientation.
If pride or patriotism drives love out the door and creates enemies to enhance identity or to preserve privilege, then the amazing ability of the human ego to justify its behavior takes over and people are bound to get hurt and God will once again be found weeping on a pile of smoking rubble left behind by the next act of human idiocy or idolatry.
Observation six, when you find yourself caught up in something overwhelming, do something human and whatever you do it will multiply. Two stories. Shortly after we got started talking to people on the street, a member of the congregation in her late eighties showed up to help. She just showed up. The water table was her idea. We did that every year in June for the Fifth Avenue Pride Parade, because that’s what Jesus said to do with thirsty people. And so following her lead we began offering ice water on that hot day and pretty soon, people trudging up Fifth Avenue covered with ash from the falling buildings and many people who needed to be with others joined in to help. Total strangers were helping her hand out water. It wasn’t heroic, it was tiny compared to what others were doing at Ground Zero, but it was the love of Jesus. That’s one story and here’s another.
Most of us on the staff of the church and many of our members were customers at a tiny drug store on 29th Street just off Madison. The pharmacist was a devout Moslem. At our first staff meeting after the disaster, one of the administrative assistants brought up our pharmacist and ask for prayers of understanding in our community. She then decided that it would be her mission to stop by his store everyday to assure him of her friendship. Many of us joined her. It wasn’t dramatic, it wasn’t heroic—it was just the love of Jesus.
In the next few days, leading up to the 20th Anniversary of 9/11 on Saturday, I hope you will take some time to remember the people who lost their lives on 9/11 and the people who have died since because of the hate that burned on that day. May our mourning and our remembering bring meaning to our living and to our loving. That’s the way of Jesus. Amen.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
Sometimes the lectionary used by most mainline churches serves up just the right text on a given Sunday, and this piece of the pastoral epistle of James is one of those passages. It begins by acknowledging that God is the source of all good things. And given that, our response is likely to involve gratitude and the desire to do what is pleasing to our Creator.
I don’t know if you remember a staff reflection I wrote about two years ago, but I wrote about the “secret sauce” that I had discovered while going through radiation and hormone treatment for cancer. I was surrounded by an amazing team at the Harmony Cancer Center, and I could not help but be grateful for their outpouring of loving concern for my wellbeing. And the gratitude I experience changed me: it empowered me to have a better attitude about facing something scary and new. I certainly didn’t have a perfect attitude of gratitude, and I had some miserable days, but gratitude made life better. Have you had that experience with gratitude? Do you ever imagine what you are grateful that God has given you?
The second thing we hear about in the letter is that to take three steps in attitude: 1) be quick to listen; 2) be slow to speak; and 3) be slow to anger. This is sage advice, especially during anxious times like those where we currently find ourselves.
This summer, I’ve been doing an online class from Tufts University that has two facets: the first is weight loss, which has been a challenge for me for a long time, and I’ve lost 30 pounds this summer. The second facet involves Positive Intelligence, learning to take difficult situations and respond to them in the most creative, positive way possible, even learning to see the gift in adverse situations. Part of what I’ve learned from this part of the course comes from the brilliant psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, who while imprisoned in Auschwitz noticed that there was nothing he could do about what others did to him or his fellow inmates. Here is the golden kernel: he noticed that what makes a difference in psychological outcomes is the way the prisoner responded to what was happening. There is a stimulus from a guard, there is a millisecond when the prisoner’s brain absorbs that message, and there is a response from the inmate. What Frankl discovered is that if one can delay the response time even by a few seconds, it gave the person a chance to rely on their higher levels of thought in creating a response. Imagine a guard yelling something foul and cruel at a female inmate. Our immediate response might be to lash out in anger physically or verbally or to become totally dejected and simply accept it. But what if one can pause and use one’s intellect to create a more strategic response? Imagine the insulted woman saying to herself, “He is just trying to goad me, and I know that this lowlife is not worth my upset and anger. I’ll take a few breaths and know that I am in control of my reaction and move on.”
So, there is a stimulus, a message, and a response. Practicing the pause allows you to react not from the reptilian brain stem (which urges fight, flight, or freeze) and instead respond from the prefrontal cortex, providing you with insights about how you react.
At La Foret last week, I had a conversation with our conference minister, Sue Artt, and I learned that conflict in our congregations is rampant at the moment, and I’ve heard the same thing from clergy colleagues on Facebook. All of us have experienced some trauma with Covid, political divisiveness, wildfires near and far, climate change, and the state of racism in our nation. It can look like the world is falling apart. What do you think that compound trauma does to our ability to practice the pause and not react from our reptilian brain? I’ve said it before… our fuses are shorter, our thoughts aren’t as clear, our sense of compassion may be wearing thin, and we’re looking for someone to blame. And it won’t last forever, so long as we take steps to recognize and heal some of our own trauma.
Do you remember those three pieces of sage advice I read a few moments ago? 1) be quick to listen; 2) be slow to speak; and 3) be slow to anger. The epistle writer knew about practicing the pause, the way human emotions work, and steps toward Positive Intelligence! Can you remember those three steps? 1) Listen. 2) Speak later. 3) Slow your anger response. “If those who claim devotion to God don’t control what they say, they mislead themselves. Their devotion is worthless.” (v. 26)
Scottish comedian Craig Ferguson (no relation) has a bit in his standup routine that provides sage advice in practicing the pause. He said that he and his former wife were in therapy for quite a while and that he developed a three-part question that he posed for himself before responding: 1) Does this need to be said? 2) Does this need to be said by me? 3) Does this need to be said by me right now? If you ask yourself those three questions in the affirmative, you can say it! And you’ll have given yourself enough time for your prefrontal cortex to wrest control from your reptilian brain. And let’s face it, nobody wants to react like a lizard!
Both of those elements — gratitude and practicing the pause — won’t just help your relationships, they will enliven your faith. Slowing down a bit, trying to see things in broader perspective, taking time to notice what God is doing in the world and in your life will deepen your experience of the sacred.
The third piece of the puzzle listed in the epistle to living into your faith, bringing theory into practice. “You must be doers of the word and not only hearers who mislead themselves.” (v. 22) One of the pieces of wisdom I learned in the nutrition part of my summer class is that 20 percent of the process is knowing what to eat, and 80 percent is developing habits in doing them. So, it’s important in this program to know that I need to eat more protein, more fiber, fewer simple carbs and very few sweets. Developing new eating habits means that I’ve started to love, even to crave, half of a Kirkland protein bar as my afternoon snack! I no longer have to think about it…I just do it. Habits work when you’re trying to DO something. I’ve tried to be a DOER of the diet, not just a HEARER of the diet.
It is similar with faith. We can have lots of theological knowledge, but if it isn’t put into practice, what is the use of it? So what if we think that Jesus was a healer and teacher of alternative wisdom within first century Judaism? If we don’t put his teachings into practice, they are just a curiosity. What are you going to DO about it? Are you going to emulate Jesus’ compassion to the extent it becomes habitual? Is being here at Plymouth or on our livestream every Sunday a habit, or do you have to cogitate and make a decision each week whether or not to attend? Are you someone who is habitually engaged as a volunteer, or do you need to debate with yourself about whether to participate? Are you somebody who is in the habit of acting for social justice, or do you sit on the sidelines and let someone else do it? It takes a lot of extra work to weigh every decision about how you are going to participate…unless you’ve simply made it a good habit.
Good spiritual engagement habits enliven our faith in ways that help the rubber meet the road. It takes a two-dimensional faith journey map and brings it into three dimensions, adding depth to your pilgrimage through life. Our faith in the UCC is a lot less about creeds and a lot more about deeds.
It occurs to me that the epistle writer charts a course for Beloved Community for us. It is our job is FIRST to live in gratitude to God, SECOND, to listen and delay our urge to blurt things out or to be reactive, and THIRD to engage our faith with love and compassion. Together, Plymouth, this is how we form a healthy church and Beloved Community. Amen.
© 2021 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact hal at plymouthucc.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.