The Rev. Hal Chorpenning
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
Have you had the experience of being a college freshman and being paired with a roommate with whom you had nothing in common? That was my reality at UC Santa Barbara. Conal was a tall, wiry guy from the Central Valley, studying math, and who was a committed Evangelical, who was convinced that my soul needed saving. He offered me many invitations to join him at his church, and I eventually accepted. As a teenager who had been raised in a nice New England Congregational church, I wasn’t fully aware of what a charismatic Christian service would be like, and as the service progressed, I felt increasingly out of place and totally uncomfortable. I remember them stressing the importance of being born again, as if it was a one-time gateway to salvation after death.
That phrase — this whole text — has been coopted by white Evangelicals and assigned a certain meaning to “born again,” indicating the separation of the saved from the damned. That is a shame, because it is a truly meaningful and important text. Perhaps because we have had experiences like I did in Conal’s church or because we were raised in such churches or because we’ve seen the fruits of conservative White evangelicalism, we’ve been too quick to dismiss this passage from John’s gospel. But we should be careful not to throw away our inheritance as if it was dirty bathwater. Too often, we in the mainline church dispense with the notion that we’ve missed the mark and that we need to change and experience a rebirth. The late Irish poet, priest, and philosopher, John O’Donohue, writes, “Change is so difficult for us. So often we opt to continue the old patterns rather than risking the danger of difference.”
Often, we associate change with loss, which, especially if you’re over 50 or have a degenerative disease, is natural, because as our bodies “mature,” there is a loss of function, facility, and flexibility. But other changes — spiritual, psychological, wisdom — can represent gains, rather than losses.
In terms of spiritual growth, who wouldn’t want to sense rebirth and renewal? It’s actually a wonderful opportunity if we try to see the world with new eyes or to see the world through the lens of Christ…through the lens of hope. That would be a rebirth for some of us!
Last week, I got a fund-raising letter, and most of them find their way right into the recycling bin. But not this one; it was from the Center for Action and Contemplation, Richard Rohr’s organization in Albuquerque. Here is what stuck with me:
“The Gospel message is one of hope — not because it changes what we see, but because it changes how we see….The gift of hope during such a traumatic year is the gift of a new way of seeing in difficult times….The commitment to see the world through a different set of eyes and show up as a hopeful presence is a huge act of participation in transforming oneself and the world. Fr. Richard speaks to the power of this…: ‘I think we’ve been led into a period of exile again, both as a culture and as a church. In the periods of shadow, we feel a lot of hostility. We take it out on other people by blaming them. Often, all it takes to stem this process is for one person to take a hopeful stance.’”
Here are some visions of hope that I’ve heard from our congregation in your response to our pandemic worship, meeting, and communication survey, about what you have learned these past 15 months:
What lenses have you been wearing? Has your prescription changed during the months of our separation? I had an eye exam last week and my astigmatism has worsened and distorted my vision a bit. Perhaps what we all need is a slight change in our individual spiritual lens prescription. And perhaps that’s what we need in our congregational prescription lenses, too: a tweak that will help us see things more clearly, through the lens of hope, not just for ourselves, but for every life we touch.
So often, we American Protestants have thought about God’s salvation only on an individual basis and not as collective salvation of all God’s people and creation. So, what would it look like if our church was to be born again or born anew? What if we, as a congregation, could be reborn in an evolutionary or even a revolutionary way as we step over the threshold of post-pandemic life? How might we, as a congregation, deepen our pilgrimage?
John O’Donohue writes, “When the grip of some long-enduring winter mentality begins to loosen, we find ourselves vulnerable to a flourish of possibility and we are suddenly negotiating the challenge of a threshold.”
Thresholds are times of new beginnings…of begin born again or born anew. Just as the buds on the trees have burst open with the spring, our congregation, too, can be born anew, as we emerge from the long winter of pandemic.
O’Donohue continues: “A threshold is not simply a boundary; it is a frontier that divides two different territories, rhythms, atmospheres. Indeed, it is a lovely testimony to the fullness and integrity of an experience or a stage of life that intensifies toward the end into a real frontier that cannot be crossed without the heart being passionately engaged or woken up. [Dare we say born anew?] At this threshold a great complexity of emotion comes alive: confusion, fear, excitement, sadness, hope. This is one of the reasons such vital crossings are always clothed in ritual. It is wise in our own lives to be able to recognize and acknowledge key threshold: to take time; the feel the varieties of presence that accrue there; to listen inward with complete attention until you hear the inner voice calling you forward. The time has come to cross.”
What emotions are coming alive for you at this point in our collective journey? Are you excited to be back in our sanctuary? Confused about whether it’s safe to be out and about? Afraid that it won’t be the same? Excited for the new directions our Strategic Plan will lead? Anxious about how it’s all going to shake out? Hopeful that new beginnings will bring new possibilities and new people into our midst? Personally, I’ve had all of those feelings, and I suppose most of us have. But if we keep our hope-filled lenses at the ready, we’ll be prepared to take that step forward across the threshold.
We’ve been in a liminal space — a long threshold — since March 2020, and we’re finally nearing the point where we actually step across it. As a congregation we can lean on God and one another to be courageous and emotionally vulnerable as we prepare to be born anew as people of the Spirit.
May we open our hearts, our minds, our hands, and our doors as together we are born again.
© 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.
 John O’Donohue, To Bless the Space between Us. (NY: Doubleday, 2008), loc. 752.
 CAC Spring 2021 appeal letter.
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.
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
1 Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3 And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
Happy Father’s Day to all fathers and father figures, both male and female here today! I am remembering my dad who as many of you know was a storytelling preacher, a professor of Philosophy or religion and a seminary president. He often preached on Romans and memorized many passages from it for his preaching. This passage brings me memories of him. I can hear Dad reading it in my mind. I can hear the rhythm of the cadence and inflection of his voice. And I remember him reading it with such passion. Not being a tall man he would rise up on his toes in excitement as he preached or read scripture, as if he was going to make a basketball goal just as he did in high school when he was captain of the team and they won state. Holding his soft-covered, leather pulpit Bible up in his left hand, he might paraphrase a bit to reiterate his points saying...”Because we are justified by our faith, set right with God, through Jesus and so have access to God’s peace and grace...” As the meaning of the text became more intense he rose higher on his toes reaching the highest point at “and hope does not disappoint us!” Then he would come down and lean in with the punch line, “because God's love has been poured [big pouring motion with his right hand] into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”
This text was not about false, feel good sentiment for Dad. It was not a happy-clappy message. God will make everything fine for us if we just believe in the right way. For Dad, Paul’s message was life-changing news in the midst of the very real lives of the people he was addressing, in the midst of their sorrows and tragedies along with their joys. This message brought ultimate meaning and purpose to his life so he was passionate to share it. I do not remember all of his exegesis. The legacy he left is the memory that my Dad was/is a friend of God. He once told me, shortly after my mom’s death, and after at least 60 years of preaching God’s good news, that when he died his hope was that he would learn to love as God loves.
That’s an aspiration, isn’t it? To learn to love as God loves. I know Dad had glimpsed that in many ways while he was here with us in this life. I trust he is learning it more fully now. And I have to ask myself, do I have this aspiration? What about us here in this faith community? Do we want to learn to love as God loves here in the midst of our lives? Do we want to at least catch glimpses of this selfless loving? And in doing so be friends of God?
In this passage from the letter to the Romans, Paul acknowledges that he and the early Christians lived in very trying times. At times he wrote his letters from prison. They knew the danger of persecution. Yet Paul’s conviction is that God is utterly faithful just as God was to his ancestor, Abraham, and in God’s action in the world through Jesus, as well as the sending of the Holy Spirit. To be justified, to be set right with God through our trust in God, is to know God as Friend.
Paul tells us that even in the midst of suffering we stand in God’s grace and share in God’s peace because God is our faithful friend. Take a moment and ponder this. In the midst of your personal lives, here at Plymouth in our communal life we stand in God’s grace and peace. Because we have been justified, set right with God through our trust. We can rejoice with Paul trusting that God befriends us before we even befriend or trust God back.
We can rejoice with Paul because like him we know the heritage of the Hebrew Scriptures tells of God the Creator and God the Spirit moving across the waters of creation. Because, like Paul, we experience the faithfulness of God in Jesus, the one who lived among us, who was crucified by the sin of the world and yet through whom God conquered death in the resurrection.
The articulation of the doctrine of the Trinity came generations after Paul’s writing. Yet implicit in his testimony here in Romans is the Holy One-in-Three, the Holy Three-in-One, the mystery we name the Trinity. One unified God who has three faces or three windows of revelation into the hugeness, the unfathomable nature of the Divine. Knowing that God is faithful friend simplifies this mysterious and often confusing human-made doctrine of Trinity for me. I think of one of my closest earthly friends and the many different roles she plays in my life, comforter, challenger, care-giver, confronter and I understand the different faces of God as friend.
Paul tells us that to be justified by faith is to be friends with the flow of Love that we know as God, that we envision as the community of the Holy ONE – Earth-maker, the Source and Creator of All, Jesus, the Pain-bearer, who came to share our common lot, who bears with us the weight of this world, and Spirit, who continues the Life-giving movement of hope and deepest joy even in the midst of suffering. In deep friendship with the Holy One-in-Three, we can say confidently and without shallow sentiment that our sufferings can produce endurance and endurance character and character hope, no matter what situations life brings. Then we know in the midst of sorrow or joy the glory of God and we can in the best sense of the word boast of, share joyfully, without arrogance, but with the strength of humility, God’s peace and grace because God’s love has been poured into our hearts.
Sometimes mysteries are best understood through looking at them through the corner of our eyes in story.
On the very real mountain and peninsula named Mt. Athos in northeastern Greece, a place of 20 monastic communities comprising one large Easter Orthodox monastery, there is one monastery that was the smallest of all, the Lesser Monastery of the Holy Trinity. It holds only three monks and one lay porter. It is difficult to get to being high up on a cliff. The path to its door is steep and winding and windy. The small door to the monastery is always open and leads you into a sunny courtyard with plants blooming throughout the year. When a pilgrim enters, the person finds a small bench to sit on. Old Gregorio, the porter, lets the pilgrim sit in silence for a time as he peers through a small window to get a sense of the person. Eventually he emerges to sweep the courtyard and shyly ask the pilgrim questions such as “Where are you from?” Or “How was your journey?” Then he silently slips away and returns with one of the monks.
If he returns with Father Demetrios, the eldest monk, an old man with a long white beard, the monk sits right next to the pilgrim and begins to talk immediately. His voice is rich and deep. His words flow like honey from a comb, words of welcome and wisdom. He always seems to know just how long to talk for when he stops the pilgrim will spill forth their own words of confession, contemplation, of doubt and faith, words coming from the heart and sometimes with tears.
If Old Gregorio brings back Father Iohannes the interaction is very different. Father Iohannes is a rather round middle-aged monk with curling brown hair and warm eyes. He sits on a chair in the sun, just across from the pilgrim on the bench and looks deep into their eyes before closing his own eyes to sit in the sun in silence. From time to time he might look at them again. The silence is companionable, but it can last all morning...even into the afternoon. The pilgrim is always the one to break it, finally pouring forth their story. In the end Father Iohannes who has listened intently, gazes at the pilgrim with the deep, silent love of a brother and then simply gives a blessing.
When Old Gregorio bring forth the third monk, the pilgrim encounters a beardless, young man, Father Alexis. He looks lovingly into the face of the pilgrim with the clear, guileless eyes. His own face becomes a mirror for what he sees in the pilgrim’s face – sorrow and grief, frustration or anger, confusion, the joy of learning and asking questions. When he speaks, it is from the deepest yearnings of the pilgrim’s own soul and holds the wisdom of God that is within.
Most pilgrims stay the night and when they leave in the morning they pass by the Icon of the Trinity that is the little monastery’s greatest treasure. In it sit three figures in a loving circle, breaking bread with one another – a white headed, white bearded old man, a curly, brown-haired, smiling man of middle age and a young man with a clear face who seemed to gaze beyond his companions and into the eyes of the beholder. This is the same icon that Old Gregorio says his prayers in front of early each morning, crossing himself three times, praying for the wisdom to direct each pilgrim who might visit that day to the monk the pilgrim’s soul most needs.
For those who seek this smallest of monasteries on Mt. Athos, they would do well to remember it is more a place of heart than of the map. And that the monks and old porter are waiting patiently within a space of prayer and image. And that the Lesser Monastery of the Trinity could just as easily hold an elderly, but energetic housekeeper named Georgiana, an abbess named Mother Demeter who writes beautiful poetry and songs, an earthy, ginger-haired middle aged woman, a healer, named Joanna and a young, lithe woman with blond hair and keen green eyes, a weaver of tapestries who is named Alexis, meaning helper, like her make counterpart.
God comes to us as friend, creating us anew, bearing our pain with us, empowering and emboldening us to act on our deepest loves. This is the mystery of the Trinity. And this is the message of the apostle Paul who believed he was set right by God’s friendship, given God’s peace and grace and love poured into his heart. This is the friendship that empowers all we do in acts of social justice, acts of caring for one another, acts of welcoming the stranger, of feeding the hungry and housing the homeless, acts of worship and fellowship and study and prayer. This friendship empowers ALL we do. Do you accept it? The friendship of this larger than life, abundantly overflowing Holy One-in-Three, Three-in-One God? It is freely given.
Amen and Amen.
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.