The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph
Thorny Theology Themes Series
Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ,
Fort Collins, Colorado
*Preceding the sermon, the Time with Children was a telling of the Disney story of Frozen and singing of Let it Go. Our hymns in the service are referenced in the sermon: There is a Balm in Gilead and Nearer My God to Thee.
From the earliest advent of storytelling, the question of salvation, deliverance, renewal, and liberty have all been at the root of our storytelling: from the Vedas of Hinduism, Sacred stories in the Bible, to those of The Iliad, folktales around the world, and even Disney movies, the question of salvation is at the root of our spiritual/ethical discourse as humans. Our Scripture today comes from the Gospel of John which was written by people [The Johannine Community] who didn’t actual know Jesus as human but were many years later, like us, trying to make sense out of this religion without the founder present in person. They were a persecuted people, threatened daily with total destruction by the empire. Nicodemus comes to Jesus under the cover of night in fear (a story only mentioned in John). Nicodemus is understood by scholars to represent a group of people rather than an individual. He gets at the root of salvation: it is something deeply personal, a coming-out process from the night, wholeness, and also the idea of rebirth for all. This story of salvation Jesus tells Nicodemus is both deeply personal and also completely communal.
Since I am about to preach on one of the most controversial and sensitive topics in all of religion and humanity, I really need your prayers. Will you pray with me? God, I ask for your blessing and assurance before preaching knowing that all of my words are inadequate to describe your love, completely insufficient to explain your grace, and unable to fully announce your salvation. Therefore, O God, in urgency I pray that the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts may be good and pleasing to you, our Rock and our Salvation. Amen.
In 2013, I was in the middle of my Systematic Theology coursework in seminary. When we got to the section about Soteriology (The Study of The Doctrine of Salvation) it was time for spring break. I left on my annual pilgrimage to Boston to visit my half-brother and my two wonderful nieces still thinking about salvation and its meaning. No sooner had I arrived in their home and sat down than my nieces both, simultaneously, started singing loudly at me! Let it Go… Let it Go…! They were extolling, laughing, and preaching a new “gospel” of their new favorite thing in the whole world: Disney’s Frozen. A story that on the surface was filled with all of the usual Disney tropes of princesses, talking snowmen, assorted villains, and a happily ever after.
As I listened closer, I realized that this was no normal children’s movie. In fact, I am convinced that it is Disney’s MEA CULPA to the universe for all of their previous work. In Frozen, Disney subverts almost all of its traditional characters, values, genders, and norms in one film. **SOILER ALERT** First, the price “charming” is the villain with political motivation for his courtship and declarations of love. The closest thing to a “Wiseman” is a talking snowman named Olaf with a penchant for warm hugs and melting, and the “witch” who causes winter to overcome her realm, who lives in the ominous North Mountain [The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe], and who conjures monsters… is actually the one being oppressed, isolated, and denied her true self. It is the winter witch character who needs saving. It is a story of salvation, of coming out of the closet about one’s true self, about finding true authenticity, and about the empowerment and power of sisterhood—without help from men. The men are mostly either villains or in the way. It is about the complexity of the categories of good and evil.
As I listened and learned the “Gospel of Frozen” from my 8- and 10-year-old Jewish nieces—the most important part was that salvation, rebirth is something that comes from finding truth and acceptance from both inside and outside of self. It is something that starts within, but it requires family and friends to affirm and make whole. Salvation in Frozen is both personal affirmations, but it also takes others allowing us to live publicly in affirmed spaces. When she sings the song, Let it Go, Elsa comes-out to herself and finds empowerment… but that self-affirmation is only the start of her isolation and an outward winter. Salvation is both personal and social. Salvation needs community social justice, but it also requires true inside work, affirmation, rebirth with God.
This is a little different from the salvation narratives many of us grew-up with:
Have you been or are you saved? Have you asked Jesus Christ into your heart to be your personal Lord and Savior? [Evangelicals are good at consistency and regularity of elevator speeches.] Are you born again? For many of us Progressive Christians, either born into churches like Plymouth and/or especially those of us converted to the mainline from more evangelical or fundamentalist backgrounds like mine in the Assemblies of God “The A.O.G.,” these phrases are more than thorny theological themes. They are theological-PTSD trigger words. Amen? The wounds of picking the thorns of those theologies out of our hands [gesture and gaze down to look like picking thorns out of hands and chest.], feet, ears, eyes, and especially our hearts [Pause and look around] … remain forever.
What those of you who grew-up in progressive theologies like ours at Plymouth might not really understand is how long, decades even lifetimes, it takes for the anxiety and fear associated with questions about personal salvation to dissipate. What if they were right? What if when I said my salvation prayer, I didn’t do it right? What is what they said was true? To convert from a Christianity focused on personal salvation and that worldview (salvation vs. damnation) to Plymouth and the UCC’s communal or societal “social justice” or “Social Gospel” understanding of salvation is a challenge. It is a true change of religion…a rebirth.
This is because we have been offered, consciously and subconsciously, a dichotomy and dual worldview. Either you are in the Christian Camp of Personal Salvation and Personal Faith through Jesus Christ as a way to avoid damnation… OR a Christianity based in Social Justice, Communal Culpability, Social Sin, Social Gospel, and the example of Jesus as a road map for living in communities where we seek heaven while living. In the former, Jesus Christ is the vehicle of salvation to carry us through life and death; while in the latter, his life and example are simply a divine roadmap for us to attempt to follow for salvation in this life. Biblically, we find evidence for both interpretations.
May I suggest, my dearly beloved, that one may be fundamentalist on either side of this divide? Are we fundamentalist social gospel Christians? Perhaps, the best understanding of salvation falls somewhere in the middle.
“Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”[b] 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, [I like it better in the KJV… VERILY…] I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.[c] 11 “[Verily], I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you[g] do not receive our testimony.
This passage from the Gospel of John is used by Evangelicals as the proof text for a born-again theology. There is a sense of being born in a new way through Spirit when we come into a place of faith. There is also in it a deep sense of community: “We speak… (not I speak) of what we know and testify to what we have seen.” This text is both personal and communal.
I bought a house and inherited a pet that bites: a rose garden with red English roses, yellow, and pink roses. On the first day tending my roses, for the first time in my life, a plant bit me. Still, after a lot of practice, I regularly get bitten by these thorny, beautiful, symbolic flowers. We may not have the roses, the flowers without the thorns. While our Social Justice/Social Gospel salvation is mostly roses, it too has thorns. While a personal salvation understanding has its many thorns (which many of us know all too well), I have learned to also embrace the roses of the theology I grew-up with. So, briefly, let’s compare and contrast the roses and thorns of both ways of seeing salvation: Progressive/UCC Salvation Theology and Evangelical Salvation Theology:
Roses of the UCC: Starting with the UCC: When we say social justice or social gospel in the United Church of Christ, we are talking about our soteriology—our theology of salvation. Systematically, we progressive, Mainline Christians interpret the Bible as an arc of narrative and human experience in community working itself out in the here and now (this lifetime). We look for heaven in this life and salvation in how to treat people and the planet. It is expressed in freedom, and liberation from systems of oppression. We do this through our participation in God’s arc of justice, equality, and improving living conditions for all people. What are the roses of our theology? The rose of this theology is that we live this life fully, Amen!? For us, the word salvation is a synonym of wholeness, of liberation, or authentic life on a communal or corporate level. We do tend to be corporate.
At best, we do not, as a matter of theology, focus on individual behavior or values as problematic or sinful. The roses are beautiful in the UCC! We really believe that we can make this planet into God’s Realm here and now. Wow! That is truly beautiful and remarkable—something to own and recognize. We can save people through living authenticity. We can make salvation come through reconciling communities and learning our history and claiming it and trying to make it better. We find roses of the Salvation of Jesus Christ in the UCC as a salvation from meaninglessness. God gives us purpose and judgement. Jesus is our salvation from a lack of purpose. If you don’t believe me or think you need more saving, ask the Nominating Committee. We can find more purpose for you. This is a communal view of salvation. Salvation is worked out through how we act as communities over time. Deliverance is a gift from God, but we are called to be Christ in the world building God’s realm here and now: feet, hands, and presence. A rose for us is that we are empowered by our theology to seek a better world, make change, be educated, and to never stop trying for better society.
UCC Thorns: But we too have thorns, friends! Our thorns are that we can focus so much on the communal, the reconciliation of communities, and societal sins and ills in Washington DC and Denver (We enjoy finger pointing at the lies and societal sins of others in capitols without remembering our own internal untruths and lies.) that we forget about the ministry of people with their real lives and real need for personal healing and hope.
Likewise, our sense of God and God’s salvation power gets tangled up and confused with our own works and actions to save the world. I call this one “The Tillichian Thorn” after Paul Tillich. This thorn is that we forget that we and our denominations are not God. As your pastoral care minister, I know that people are miserable, alone, wrestling with life. Our message of “work harder” and to give more to change the world only works to a degree before it too can destroy lives from a sense of powerlessness or failure. What is wrong with me? Why isn’t our work changing the systems? Does this mean God isn’t real?
In our theology it is also much harder to start over. There are really no fresh starts, no new beginnings in the UCC. Everything is too communally, historically, and politically situated for that. We all own the burdens and sins of the past of our communities without hope of redemption in our lives—because salvation isn’t up to one person to solve. Salvation is generational work for us. Our thorn is that we are all bearers of the sins of our communities over the eons.
Finally, the saddest part, the thorn that hurts me as a former Evangelical and former hospice and hospital chaplain is that for many within our UCC theology of salvation—we don’t dream of, imagine, and hope for true tangible reunions with our beloved and with God and Jesus after death. If you grew up in the UCC, a vague sense of afterlife is commonplace, but it is hard for converts. While we might hint at it as possible…perhaps…maybe, we don’t claim that hope in the same way—and that is our loss. Mostly we picture floating energy masses. We don’t imagine a hug and a recognizable embrace from an embodied loved one, a son, a mother, a mentor. We are so embodied in life as progressives, yet we don’t allow ourselves to imagine God’s incarnate power after death. Our post-mortem imaginations are super boring in the UCC and our after-death expectations usually revolve around hoping that its peaceful! We set the bar low for God’s possibilities. That is perhaps the biggest thorn. Salvation is not part of our thinking about death. We speak more in terms of transitions than salvations.
Okay, now for the Evangelical reading of salvation thorns and roses.
Evangelical Thorns: Many of us, including myself, are here today because of the all too deadly and painful thorns of evangelical salvation theology. Because these theologies focus on the individual person, it has developed a set of “good and bad” behaviors conveniently supportive of institutions and The Patriarchy. These rules define the need for this salvation. Yes, I said it—many of the traditional “sins” can be traced to political power, especially Victorian norms, and its maintenance by certain social groups over history: white, male, straight, able-bodied, and married. For some of us, that means Bible as weapon used to abuse and destroy lives and to keep others in line. Love the sinner, hate the sin. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard that. As a result, two more thorns exist for this understanding of salvation. One is a resistance to modern, good, intellectual Biblical interpretation that casts doubt on their ancient list of sins. That list is too precious to their power to question even if it has little to do with their core faith. We know from text study and history that many of the things called “sins” by Evangelicals are modern superimpositions on an ancient text. Recognizing intellectuals challenges their entire system of power. Lastly, Evangelical salvation is so focused fundamentally on the individual that they become blind to the great social sins, political expediency, and they ignore whole parts of the Bible that are crystal clear on social orders for equity, care of widow, refugee, orphan, and communal response.
The Evangelical Roses: The evangelicals have a rose, however, something sacred and wonderful. They carry a beautiful rose of a deep sense of God’s presence, comfort, and work in their lives. They live with their ears close to their hearts and observe life with keen interest looking for communication from God. For this reason, while sins are easy, mistakes are almost impossible for Evangelicals. Conversely… for the Mainline Progressives mistakes are easy and ridiculed (whispered about as “poor strategic planning…”) while sins are hard or impossible. This shows where we locate power. For an Evangelical, there are no mistakes. This makes them much better and more faithful risk takers. Try, try and try again with God and there is no wrong. Even a sin can be used by God for learning and good. While us liberals use the word “intentionality” and “intentional living” like it’s going out of style, the Evangelicals actually do it. God is active, and they are attentive to details like Sherlock Holmes detectives. While many cradle Mainliners like to ride this off as “fake” or “pretense,” I can tell you that the Evangelicals I know live that reality in authenticity and conviction. Let’s see what God will do? God is Good… God is great! Those are some upbeat and honest phrases Evangelicals utter when they are at their theological best. They are very good at intentional living.
Finally, the biggest and best rose is a rose that triggers many of us progressives to tune out and run away right when we should be leaning in. They have is this “born-again” language about Salvation that comes from our passage today in John 3. It is the language of rebirth. What the Evangelicals mean when they say “born again” is a fresh start in faith and in life. They mean a new life in Christ. They have an expansive understanding of what is possible in restarting life in faith that we rarely have. When someone tries to tell you their born-again story, listen, because they are trying to share something intimate… akin to a coming-out story.
This is why they are so much more effective at running 10-step programs, at running prison ministries, running rehab programs, and ministering to those with economic diversity and hardship. They meet people when they actually wish that they could be reborn. Statistically, as privileged upper middle-class churches, the progressive church can rarely imagine wanting a rebirth—because life is good. We don’t minister to people at the bottom of their lives because our theology doesn’t offer as much. Because in the Mainline, we focus on big systems and social sins (big solutions and movements) …we are good at giving money, starting programs, etc. We write letters or are in DC lobbying from the top to create better policy and improve the prison systems from the top, while the Evangelicals are in the cells changing lives from the bottom. Can’t we say that both theologies are necessary and maybe part of God’s work? While the Mainline has roses in systems, the Evangelicals are really good at and have roses of giving people at the lowest, hardest points in their personal lives hope at starting over from the point of birth. It is never too late for God. It is never too late—no matter what systems of oppression you were born into. Never too late.
Friends, in seminary in Georgia and as a geriatric hospital chaplain (CPE), I had to find a way to speak to the born-again Christians around me. I found that in silently naming my coming out experience of personal liberation as a moment when I was born again… saved. It was my Elsa moment of admitting that I had a gift, a blessing, a skill in this life to celebrate rather than hide. Hiding it was only causing winter for myself and others. Yes, I have been born again many times—once in first grade at Heritage Christian School down at Prospect and Ellis (and, yes, it was a powerful moment of love and grace), and again in high school in my family’s living room saying, “I’m gay and God loves me!” I was born again when you ordained me and renamed me “Reverend” with a laying on of hands. Rebirths through God’s power for wholeness are endless. How many born-again moments have you had in your life when God offered you a fresh life? Do you need one?
I want to tell you of what I know… and testify to what I have seen. We are shown a way for us to hold our progressive theology, our social Gospel, but to also honor the good that a more personal understanding of salvation holds. Our language of coming out and authenticity is compatible with the theology of being born again. The Evangelicals won’t make that translation, nor do we need to aggregate them by telling them we are translating into our language—but it is a way to reinterpret what they intend by that salvation language. We can have conversations about salvation theology with Evangelicals—if we translate their language into ours. The only difference is for us, we believe that sin means falsehood both in society and in our personal reality, and we also believe that we can be born again (start over) many times in our lives rather than just once.
Coming Out as gay and being reborn in Christ are similar experiencing of claiming wholeness and promising to move forward in love with God and Christ. If we can be the church to name the common human experience of both of these, we will have a rose garden for all people. Forcing the Gospel and Scripture 100% into either communal social justice or 100% personal salvation will cause a winter for us either inside or outside. This is Elsa’s lesson in Frozen. Why can’t we believe in social and personal deliverance and community possibility?
When they translated the title song from Frozen called "Let it Go" from English into French, they had a problem. “Let it go” is too long in French for the tune. So, instead they translated it into: "Liberated, Delivered/Saved… I won’t lie anymore. Liberated, Delivered/Saved… it is decided that I am leaving!” [More information on translating this song.]
Libérée, délivrée (Liberated, Delivered/Saved)
Je ne mentirai plus jamais (I will never lie again!)
Libérée, délivrée (Liberated, Delivered/Saved)
C'est décidé, je m'en vais (It is decied… I’m leaving)
Et me voilà ! (And here I am!)
Oui, je suis là ! (Yes, I am there!)
Libérée, délivrée (Liberated, Delivered/ Saved)
Le froid est pour moi, le prix de la liberté (The cold is for me the price of freedom.)
Frozen is about what happens when we find acceptance of self but don’t follow that up with claiming the gifts of community and family. We might know who we are, but the process of salvation for Elsa is frozen until her sister Anna comes to let her know that she is loved in her new identity and power. Salvation, friends, is both personal relationship with God and self, but as today’s Scripture shows us, it also requires the “we.” May we always be un-fundamentalists from every perspective. Amen.
 Translate by Jake Miles Joseph
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.
Dr. David L. Petersen
Plymouth UCC, Fort Collins
“By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down.” So begins Psalm 137, a psalm that refers to a momentous time in the history of the Israelites. Between 600 and 580 before the Christian era, many of the leaders and much of the population of Judah were forcibly removed from their land and taken to several cities in the Babylonian empire. It was a wrenching event, since the centerpiece of their religion, the temple in Jerusalem, had been destroyed, and many of their cities had been burned to the ground. Their religion had focused on, among other things, the offering of sacrifices, which according to their beliefs could only be offered at the temple. Such religious practices were no longer possible. The people had lost their homes, their land, and their central religious shrine.
Fortunately, most, if not all, of us, will never experience that sort of exile. We know about other exiles, for example, the exile of the Cherokee people in the first half of the nineteenth century from their homeland in Georgia to what is now Oklahoma. But that is not something we’ve lived through. There are, however, other kinds of exiles, if we mean by exile "a prolonged and usually forced living away from our normal lives due to dynamics over which we have no control." We can be sent into exile by economic forces, by ill health, by social forces, and by psychological forces.
We can be sent into exile due to economic forces. This happened to my father’s family during the depression. My grandfather was employed by a woodworking company, which had lost much of its business. As a result, he moved his family to Arkansas, where they were able to live off the land and at much less expense than would have been the case had they stayed in Illinois. They were really in exile, away from all their family, away from their church, and away from the place that they knew as home. This wasn’t self-exile; it was a forced migration due to pressures against which they could not stand. We know people in that kind of exile.
We can be sent into exile due to the forces of ill health. A person can be forced to leave one’s healthy self and made to live with a compromised body. Last month, Sara and I visited a friend who is in the final stages of her struggle with brain cancer. We knew her as a terribly bright, energetic, and funny person. I worked with her on a number of editorial projects and within the context of our professional society. That was then; this is now. Now, she lives in exile from that former self, having suffered brain damage from the cancer and paralysis from a stroke. She is in exile, isolated from the person she formerly was. We know people in that kind of exile.
Social forces can drive people into exile. Children can be subjected to bullying and ostracism on social media and in person, so much so that they become suicidal. Jamel Myles, a nine year old who lived in Denver, committed suicide last month due to over a year of bullying at his grade school. He confronted social forces against which he could not stand; he lived in a social exile. We know people in that kind of exile.
Psychological forces can send us into exile. When a parent, a spouse or a child dies, the forces of grief batter us like a flood. We are moved away from the comfort of home to a land that is desolate, missing the person whom we had loved so much. Grief can move someone into a psychological exile. We know people in that kind of exile.
All of us are subject to these powerful forces that can drive us into various times of exile. How can we respond? The Old Testament offers at least three resources for how to live in exile and they come from three different biblical books.
First, the book of Lamentations. This brief book expresses the feelings of shock and grief that ancient Israelites experienced when their country was defeated, their capital and temple was destroyed, and much of the population was taken into exile. The poet uses the technique of personification, allowing us to hear how the city of Jerusalem, personified as a woman, responds to these events:
“She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks” Lam 1:1
She says, “For these things I weep, my eyes flow with tears…my children are desolate, for the enemy has prevailed.”(1:16). “Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow, which was brought upon me.” (1:12).
There is a clear message for us: Mourning and crying are a normal, even essential, response to exile. They help us cope with the deep emotions created by the experience of exile.
The message: Mourn and weep!
A second Old Testament response to exile occurs in Psalm 137. This psalm is a song about two cities: Babylon and Jerusalem. Jerusalem is the defeated city; Babylon is the city to which the Israelites had been exiled. We hear their voices from where they now live in exile:
“By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there we hung up our harps.
For there our captors asked us for songs:
And our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion.’
How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
Let my right hand wither.” (Vv. 1-5)
Not only had the Israelites been taken into exile, they had been ordered by their captors to entertain them with songs that they had sung at home, before they were taken into exile. To this, the Israelites said "No way. We are putting our musical instruments up in the willows and we are not going to forget Jerusalem."
There is a clear message for us: One can resist the forces that have put us in exile. We may not get out of exile. But that doesn’t mean we give in. And we must remember what is like to be “at home.”
The message: Resist and remember!
The third Old Testament response comes from the book of Jeremiah. The prophet Jeremiah himself was not taken into exile by the Babylonians. Rather, he was forcibly moved to Egypt by some of his fellow Israelites. Before being taken to Egypt, he wrote a letter to those in the Babylonian exile, telling them how to survive.
“Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (Jer 29:5-7)
Jeremiah knew that some of those who had been taken into exile expected to return soon. And he knew that others were despondent, living away from their home. We don’t often think of prophets as offering “pastoral” advice, but that’s exactly what Jeremiah did. He told those in exile: try to live productive lives, build houses, have families, and pray for the city where you live since your welfare depends on its welfare. Those may have been surprising, even shocking words for those who received his letter, but they were wise words.
There is a clear message for us: when we are in exile, we should build and pray, especially for the welfare of where we have been put so that we can live and flourish.
The message: Build and pray!
Most of us live in some sort of exile at one or another point in our lives. There is no one way to respond when we are in exile. But our religious tradition offers us at least three cogent and compelling ways to respond:
Mourn and weep!
Resist and remember!
Build and pray!
Dr. David L. Petersen is a Plymouth member, Old Testament scholar, and an editor of the Common English Bible,
What’s So Full About Being Empty?
Romans 12:1-2 and Philippians 2:1-8
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
12 So, brothers and sisters, because of God's mercies, I encourage you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice that is holy and pleasing to God. This is your appropriate priestly service. 2 Don't be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you can figure out what God's will is--what is good and pleasing and mature.
Bible, Common English. CEB Common English Bible with Apocrypha - eBook [ePub] (Kindle Locations 43786-43789). Common English Bible. Kindle Edition.
2Therefore, if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort in love, any sharing in the Spirit, any sympathy, 2complete my joy by thinking the same way, having the same love, being united, and agreeing with each other. 3Don't do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. 4Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others. 5Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus: 6Though he was in the form of God, he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit. 7But he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave and by becoming like human beings. When he found himself in the form of a human, 8he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
Bible, Common English. CEB Common English Bible with Apocrypha - eBook [ePub] (Kindle Locations 45118-45125). Common English Bible. Kindle Edition.
Welcome to our third installment of the sermon series, “Thorny Theological Themes.” Our words for today are.....“Surrender and Emptying.” Yikes! These are not usually positive words in our culture. To surrender implies giving up, admitting defeat, failure, sacrifice of everything. Empty implies there is nothing there. Nothing in the gift box, the grocery bag, the gas tank. Why would we want to give up, to sacrifice? To be satisfied with having nothing?
I grew up with these texts from Romans and Philippians. With the words, give your life as a sacrifice for Jesus, empty yourself of your self for God as Jesus did. Coupled with “Be Saved” sermons and “I surrender all ... all to Jesus I surrender” hymns, the words sacrifice, surrender and empty were full of conflicting emotions. I wanted to be a good Christian, to follow Jesus, but I also wanted to live my life with my gifts and joys and passions. Were these things bad? As a young adult and even into later adulthood, these passages had all the makings of what I now call “door mat” or “what a wretch am I” theology. I am nothing unless I discover and follow exactly what God wants me to be. Which couldn’t possible be what I wanted to be since I was only a sinner. My hopes and dreams couldn’t be the right thing, could they?
I was deathly afraid God’s ways would mean drudgery, invisibility, and second string status. That voice was coming from culture as much as from theology. For women were second string as human beings. Support staff for men. People of color were second string, at best. Same with pore folks of any color. LGBTQ people were totally invisible when I was growing up. To each of these groups the message of surrender, empty yourselves of who you are, is NOT good news! Thank God, since my childhood there have been activist and theological movements leading us out of closets of oppression and into liberation. Joyfully we now proclaim that we are all equally beloved children of God, each with unique, divine gifts and graces, regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, or class. We have made great progress and the resistance movements of God’s liberation continue. We still have a ways to go.
Somewhere along the line of my life, struggling with the messages of culture and scripture and church, I discovered a paradox. To sacrifice or surrender or offer my life to God, I have to know I have a Life! A life of gifts and graces uniquely given to me by God and that I am God’s beloved. To be full of who I am in God’s image, I have to be empty of who I am in the eyes of culture, for that is not who I really am. To be Full = Empty.
A famous Zen master had a visitor....some say it was a student, some say it was another master, some say -- and I think its appropriate for this congregation -– it was a university professor. While the famous master quietly served tea, the professor talked about Zen. The master poured the visitor's cup to the brim, and then kept pouring. The professor watched the overflowing cup until he could no longer restrain himself. "It's full! No more will go in!" the professor blurted. "This is you," the master replied, "How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup."[i]
Can you imagine what happened next? The professor could have walked out in a huff and claimed the famous Zen master was an old coot, a fraud. The professor could have spluttered with anger and begun to argue with master. Telling the master that this was a ridiculous metaphor and why not open the lesson with a treatise on compassion, instead. That would be really worthwhile! Or perhaps the professor had the grace to blush, to be suddenly silent and thoughtful. To get a tea towel and clean up the mess. And then to sit and wait. Thoughts churning, perhaps. But to keep silent, to breathe, to listen. After a time the master may have poured the cold tea from the cups, brewed another pot and perhaps, then the teaching could have begun in earnest. Grace in action.
Life has taught me to empty my cup. Particularly, when it comes to scripture texts that hold the baggage of a life time. What I didn’t hear or understand in these texts way back when was their crucial, life-giving wisdom. In the letter to the church in Rome, Paul gives the church instructions about new life under the lordship of God through Jesus, rather than the lordship of Caesar and the false powers of the empire. He instructs the people to structure their lives through God’s grace. Grace, the power of God’s unconditional love that Hal invited us into last week in this series. Paul says, “Because of God’s grace, God’s mercies, you can present your selves, your bodies, your whole lives as living sacrifices for God. Not burnt up, dead sacrifices, but living offerings. Present your vital, passionate, gifted life ready to live under the structure of God’s grace in the midst of all the joys and challenges.”
“This is your appropriate priestly service.” In Christ Jesus, WE are priests to one another, each and every one of us under God’s grace –- women and men, slave and free, Gentile and Jew, no matter our race or sexual orientation or gender identity or social class. We receive God’s revelation for ourselves and collectively for the community. Therefore we do not need to be poured into the mold of the world’s values -– greed, scarcity mentality, fear of the other, intolerance of difference, power over to get control –- we are transformed, changed in form through grace and empowered to live into God’s will for life, what is good and pleasing and mature. Empowered by grace to grow into all we are made to be in God’s image. Giving our all to God through Jesus, who gave his all to God. I think the world needs our living offerings in a big way right now! The world needs us to help structure it through the structures of God’s grace.
In the letter to the church in Philippi, Paul leads us further in understanding how to be a living sacrifice under the living structure of God’s grace. “Therefore, if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort in love, any sharing in the Spirit, any sympathy, complete my joy by thinking the same way, having the same love, being united, and agreeing with each other. Don't do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others. [THEN] Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus. Put on the mind of Christ.” Jesus became human, he emptied himself, made himself fully available to God, in order to be filled and used by God. To live God’ grace. An empty cup waiting to be filled.
Here is the seemingly dangerous part. The leap of faith to empty ourselves of the ways we are conformed to this world means looking inward. The leap of faith is to look within at the fear, greed, consumerism, possessiveness, scarcity thinking, suspicion even hatred of the “other”, to look at the anger, hurt, and wounds, that may be in our lives. I used to be afraid to truly be quiet and go inside....I was afraid I would find nothing there, a void, a nothingness. No one home. What I found was I was not really empty, but full of fear and self recrimination.
When I finally took the time to be in solitude and quiet, to intentionally go within, even just for a few minutes each day, I found that in “empty” was the presence of Love, the presence of God. Love first for family and friends and congregation. Then increasingly Love and forgiveness for myself.
If you take the leap to faith to empty your self in silence and solitude and prayer, to intentionally seek to let go with the body’s help of the energies of neediness, of fear, of not having or being enough, of anger, of greed, of false pride..... you name the unhealthy energies that consume you....if you seek to empty your selves of these things? Will you be filled? Will you even survive? If you come with an empty cup to learn from God’s ways of structuring the world through grace, will you really be transformed, changed?
Yes, my friends, you will. God wants to fill you with grace and love. In fact God has already put them inside of you. You only have to look within. To let go, empty your self with God’s help. Then God will show you who you really are and what amazing gifts you are filled with and how you are to use them!
So we take the leap of faith, individually and collectively as community. We give our lives as living sacrifices, offerings as Jesus did, and then the world comes back at us with fear and hatred and persecution and oppression, what then? Life happens – we lose a job, a marriage, a child, a beloved parent or friend. We receive a diagnosis that is not good. What then? We feel emptied of all strength to keep on keeping on, empty to the point of nothingness, what then? God’s Holy Spirit will fill our cups with grace– which also brings love, courage, justice strength and compassion. We will be able to respond with a cup full of the gifts of grace and we will withstand the onslaught that can sometimes be life. So practice emptying to be filled. Empty can be so full.
©The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, 2018 and beyond. 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. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
This is the second installment of our sermon series on Thorny Theological Themes, and yet I don’t know if “grace” is so much thorny as it is ignored. We sort of gloss over it when we sing “God of Grace and God of Glory” and maybe even when we sing “Amazing Grace.” And yet it is a foundational idea for Christians and perhaps especially for Protestants, whose revolution was based in large part on the idea that we are grounded in God’s grace and our response to it is what brings us to wholeness.
I remember being a little kid and going to a friend’s house for dinner, and before the meal began, his dad said, “Let’s say grace.” And I was brought up short for a minute…were we supposed to repeat the word “grace?” And things became a little clearer when he began to offer a brief prayer before the meal…what in my family we would call “the blessing.” (The briefest of blessings in our house is one only I offer — and I’m sure I shouldn’t tell you this — “God, bless our food, our family, and our crazy-ass congregation. Amen.”) But back to the family of my childhood friend…what his dad offered was in fact a blessing, so where does this “grace” title come from? Well, it’s Latin, of course! Gratia is the Latin noun for thanks, and it spills over into Romance languages with gracias and grazie. So, they were offering a prayer of thanks, which is great. But that’s not exactly what the theological concept of grace is about.
Going back to the Greek of the New Testament, the word we translate as “grace” is charis, which means a present or a gift. Even in English, when we say that someone has the gift of being attractive and engaging, we say they have charisma…that they have a gift of being able to draw people in, in the way JFK did. So, if we start thinking of grace as a present and God’s grace as a gift, what is that all about?
Well, think about that…what has God given you? Look around! It’s all grace!
You are able to inhale and exhale! You can perceive beauty and the terror in creation! You have senses and are able to perceive complex ideas! You are sitting in a progressive congregation trying to deepen your spiritual life! You understand what love feels like, both in its presence and in its absence. It’s all grace!
And you didn’t do anything to earn those gifts. Your life itself is an unearned gift from God, given to you unconditionally. I don’t know how to describe the enormity of this gift of existence, but I like the way Frederick Buechner describes it: “Grace is something you can never get but can only be given. There’s no way to earn it or deserve it or bring it about any more than you can deserve the taste of raspberries and cream or earn good looks or bring about your own birth….The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you.”
God also creates us for relationship…one with another and also with God. And that trusting relationship – that longing for and embrace of the divine – is what we call faith. And the writer of Ephesians says that it’s a relationship that we can’t earn, because it is an unconditional gift from God…our faith is a gift, a grace from our creator.
One of the thorny bits of western Christianity before the Reformation was the idea that we could build up merit with God, who was seen as something of a divine accountant, keeping track of all of the good works we do, putting them in the credit column to outweigh the sin that was in the debit column. This became a big deal in European Christianity in the 16th century with selling indulgences, through which the church told people would add to the credit column in the ledger God was keeping on you. But Martin Luther famously objected and wrote, “A Christian has no need of any work or law in order to be saved since through faith [that is, relationship] [the Christian] is free from every law and does everything out of pure liberty and freely. [The Christian] seeks neither benefit nor salvation since he [or she] already abounds in all things and is saved through the grace of God because in his faith he now seeks only to please God.”
That is an enormous idea with great implications on how we live out our faith, our relationship with God. Think of it like relationship between parent and child. Just as we have no need to earn our way into a relationship with our parents, we have no need to earn our way into a relationship with God. And just as we foster human relationships with love and communication and attention, so we nurture our faith (our relationship with God) through love and communication and attention. And yes, relationships do get skewed and broken. And with God, there is always a tender parent looking for reconciliation with a child who has wandered like the Prodigal Son. In fact, there is more grace shown when we return to the embrace of God after straying apart.
I don’t know if any of you are fixated on the image of God as accountant and trying to tilt the divine ledger in your favor, but if so…knock it off!
There is nothing wrong with doing “good works,” but if you are going on mission trips or being a trustee or organizing a yard sale just to earn God’s favor, you are barking up the wrong tree.
Instead, focus on the grace of God that has been shown to you. None of us did anything to earn the gift of life. None of us did anything to be born into an affluent society. None of us did anything to earn the exquisite beauty of Colorado. And if you focus on the grace of God, you will want to respond somehow. That’s where the Latin word gratia comes in. We respond to God’s unearned gifts to us through gratitude. We do “good works” not as a way to curry divine favor — there is no tit-for-tat with God. No, we do them because of an external response to and internal feeling: we are showing gratitude to God.
So, I’m giving you permission to let go of pious language and the “doing good to look good” either to God or to others. Get real. Take a moment each day to let God’s gifts to you soak in. Enjoy them! And respond, giving thanks to God for the outrageous gift of your life and all that surrounds you. Amen.
© 2018 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact email@example.com for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
 The Greek synonym doron is used in this passage as well.
 Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking. (SF: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993), p. 38-39.
 Martin Luther, “The Freedom of a Christian” in Martin Luther: Three Treatises, trans. W. A. Lambert. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1970), p. 298.
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.
August 26, 2018- Jubilee Sunday
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. 11 Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 12 For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. 13 Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. 14 Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. 15 As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. 16 With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
18 Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints. 19 Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.
This morning we are welcoming you back to our fall schedule of worship and classes. And we are kicking off our sermon series on Thorny Theological Themes by considering discipleship.
Our wonderful Communications Coordinator, Anna Broskie, sent me this little discipleship cartoon this week knowing the theme of the sermon. It’s a good way to get our consideration of discipleship going this morning..... [Meme shared from Unvirtuous Abbey]
What is discipleship? I think it’s a tough concept for contemporary progressive Christians. It can have negative connotations. It can feel like more pressure to save the world single-handedly through doing the right thing, volunteering enough, giving enough. Yet discipleship is more than good works, volunteering enough, giving “enough” –- whatever enough is –- of time, talent or treasure. It is more than blandly following the latest Jesus news as if on Facebook or Twitter as our little cartoon shows. It is about relationship with God through Jesus, the man of Nazareth and the Risen Christ. The works, the giving of time talent and treasure, come out of relationship.
There is a widely recognized anecdote about President Abraham Lincoln. While he was reportedly not a church-goer he was a man of deep, if at times unorthodox, faith. During the Civil War Lincoln met with a group of ministers for a prayer breakfast. At one point one of the ministers said, “Mr. President, let us pray that God is on our side.” To which Lincoln replied, “No, gentlemen, let us pray that we are on God’s side.” The President knew that religion is not a tool by which we get God to do what we want but an invitation to open ourselves to being and doing what God wants. We open ourselves to being immersed in the ways of God so we are on God’s side. And how will we know how to be on God’s side unless we are in relationship with God.
Our Plymouth mission statement affirms that we are disciples committed to being on God’s side. Our mission is “to worship 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.” As any good mission statement it states the big picture. What about the nitty-gritty of our everyday lives? What about the nitty-gritty of our everyday political scene? What about the nitty-gritty of the everyday lives of the homeless, the immigrant, the stranger, the hungry, the oppressed, the enemy, whom God calls us through Jesus to name and love as our beloved brothers and sisters?
The first century Christians in the church in Ephesus were in a similar boat as we are when it comes to the nitty-gritty of being disciples, followers of Jesus. Ephesians is a letter encouraging church people to stand firm as disciples in a time of persecution. During the latter third of the first century when this letter was written Christianity was in essence illegal. Christians confessed that Jesus was Lord, not that Caesar was lord. They refused to make sacrifices to Caesar and Caesar’s gods. The Roman empire was not the be all and end all. First century Christians practiced pacifism and non-violent resistance to the injustices of the empire. As disciples of Jesus they proclaimed God’s power of love that brought peace and justice.
This conflicted directly with the status quo recognition of power as military might and peace that was achieved through conquering the “other.” This is why our letter writer exhorts fellow Christians to spiritual battle, not battle against forces of blood and flesh. They were to stand firm in God’s power, resisting with God’s ways the systems of their society –- systems co-opted by false power, power that works through greed, fear, coercion and submission, rather than power that empowers people for the good of all. Does this context sound even the least bit familiar?
I know that some of us may squirm a bit at the idea of warfare at all....even if spiritual. We know that Christians throughout the centuries are not blameless when it comes to being caught up in false power and fear. Our Christian history is checkered with wars fought supposedly in the name of Christ, but were really in the pursuit of false power for a king or country or the church itself. May we ask forgiveness for the sins of our history.
The good news, friends, is that the writer of the book of Ephesians is actually turning the metaphor of warfare and armor inside out and upside down affirming that the life of discipleship is lived in the nitty-gritty, in the best of times, worst of times life with God. God is already in our lives. The letter writer calls us to wake up and recognize God in the midst of our lives so we are on the side of God –- which may or may not be what we think it should be. This is discipleship –- standing firm with God in resistance to false power and evil deeds.
In ironic –- and glorious -– contrast to the armored Roman soldiers who kept the peace with spear and sword, with external authority from the empire, we are to be immersed in God and have the internal authority of God’s Spirit. Consider what it might mean in your life to put on God’s belt of Truth rather than the leather belt of war. God’s truth that reveals through love the true nature of the cosmos, the creation and of each beloved child of God. How could the belt of truth inform your actions and your spirit when confronted with lies or falsehood? Could knowing the truth of love help you hold boundaries, speak kindly but firmly, not return anger for anger? How could the breastplate of righteousness -– the protective covering of God’s spirit of right living through compassion, justice, and equality -– inform not only large responses to injustice in our world, but also small acts of kindness when you see the clerk in the store, the other student on the playground, the co-worker with less confidence, bullied, teased, or laughed at?
And what kind of shoes give you the firmest foundation to be your unique self made in God’s image? Think literally for a moment.....What are your favorite most comfortable shoes, shoes that make you feel fully alive and fully who you are? Running shoes, dancing shoes, cowboy boots, Birkenstocks, Tevas, hiking boots or work boots, sparkly red patin leather shoes, spiky heels, sensible flats, wingtips, loafers, sandals? Our shoes can literally reflect the essence of we are. What “shoes,” what foundation in God’s ways, do you need so you move freely, swiftly, comfortably to proclaim God’s peace in your one wild and precious life?
How is your shield of faith? Has it been formed through prayer and study so that it is transparent with compassion, yet tough as nails? Our faith -– our living into the mystery of God’s presence in spite of and because of our doubts and questions –- is our protection as we stand firm in the struggle against false power. Our shield of faith keeps us keeping on even when we are dead tired and exhausted to the point of despair. Our shield is God’s power of love as we proclaim a message subversive to the world of greed and fear. And do you have the sword of God, which is the word of God living in us. The word of God as the sword of God has been improperly translated to be the Bible as a set of infallible laws used to bash people over the head and into submission to God. This is not the word of God the letter writer is invoking. The Bible as we know it was not yet in existence! The Word of God that the letter writer invokes your personal proclamation of God, your spoken and lived word of God’s life and love. How will your words and your actions cut through division and hate, with understanding and diplomacy, to proclaim God’s realm made visible in the world?
Discipleship, my friends, is standing firm, in full commitment to relationship with God, standing firm, rather than going with the flow of culture, as we are immersed in God’s ways.
Soren Kirkegaard, the 19th century existentialist philosopher and theologian, told a story about discipleship.
It seems there was a small town whose most revered citizen was not the mayor of the doctor or the minister, but the fire chief. One day a particularly large fire broke out in town. The fire brigade rushed to the scene, but the firemen were unable to get through to the burning building. The problem was the crowd of people who had gathered not to watch but to help put out the fire. They all knew the fire chief so well -– their children had climbed over his fire engines during excursions to the fire station. The friendliness of the fire chief was legendary. So when a fire broke out the people rushed out to help their beloved fire chief.
Unfortunately the townsfolk were seeking to extinguish this raging inferno with water pistols! Squirt guns! They all stood there, from time to time squirting their pistol into the fire while making casual conversation. The fire chief couldn’t contain himself. He started screaming at the townsfolk. “What do you think you’re doing? What on earth do you think you’re going to achieve with those water pistols?!”
The people realized the urgency of the situation. How they wanted to help the fire chief! So they started squirting more. “Come on” they encouraged each other, “We can all do better, can’t we?” Squirt, squirt, squirt, squirt.
Exasperated the fire chief yelled again. “Get out of here. You're achieving nothing except hindering us from doing what needs to be done. We need fireman who are ready to give everything they’ve got to put out this fire, people willing even to lay their lives on the line. This is not the place for token contributions”
Kierkegaard was urging us to realize that discipleship to Christ means much more than token levels of support to the church and God’s mission in the world. It calls for wholehearted and total life commitment.
As we have been encouraged by the writer of Ephesians today, let us pray together in the Spirit that we may be disciples committed whole-heartedly to following God. Let us pray for ourselves, for one another, for our work as the beloved community of Plymouth. The world needs us to follow the God we know through Jesus with our whole hearts, our whole lives, in word and deed.
©The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson, 2018 and beyond. May be reprinted with permission only.
 “Water Pistols”, http://storiesforpreaching.com/category/sermonillustrations/discipleship/
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.