Ser13nv22FC.doc “A Vision Worth Living” -1- November 13, 2022
Lection: Isaiah 65:17-25
First off, I want to thank Hal for one last opportunity to preach before we head home at the end of the month. I want to thank him as well for the opportunity to be here during his sabbatical for the second time. It is such a gift to serve in the place of a deeply respected colleague for a time, and to be subsidized to spend time with our grandchildren in such a beautiful setting. Charnley and I are deeply grateful!
Hal asked me to summarize my time with you these last few months and to share my observations on the life of this congregation of God’s people. I don’t believe he thinks I’m an expert, but just in case you might think that, I looked up some definitions of an expert and found these: an expert is a has-been drip under pressure. That’s not a bad description I suppose, but I like this one better: an expert is anyone from out of town.
Both of those definitions are helping me stay humble this morning. They remind me that my role has been to serve, and to observe, but most importantly to walk beside the people of Plymouth on a journey with Jesus. That’s all of you and so I want to thank you all for your patience and your kindness and for the privilege of working with your amazing staff and lay leaders during Hal’s sabbatical time. As you know, your ministry team will be evolving in the next months with the search for a new Associate underway and with Jane Anne’s retirement and with JT continuing his leadership journey. Let me comment on your staff. I have worked on and led church staff teams for a long time. This staff works together with respect and affection for one another. I have never served with a team where so much positive energy and spirit are present. Hal built this team, and his leadership will continue to build as the team evolves in the coming months.
As most of you know, I think, congregations in our tradition are lay led. As clergy, we serve as pastors and teachers, as coaches and advisers, and with the other members of the staff, support and facilitate the real leadership. That is your elected leadership team of three Moderators, past, present, and coming, your leadership council, your boards and ministry groups and lots of engaged volunteers. They, along with all of you, are the real heart of this congregation and their creativity and willingness to volunteer makes all that happens here possible. It is a sign of a congregation’s true strength, that the ministers, and especially the Senior minister, are often surprised by the level of activity and commitment going on in the life of the congregation. It has been a joy to behold.
Watching the Deacons every Sunday, observing the sound team, being in a building so well maintained by Trustees and volunteers who care, standing in awe of the team that led the Mission Marketplace and those who fill our worship with music and those groups that do so much in this community that brings to life the love of Jesus. I find myself wanting to dance with joy and thankfulness for this local incarnation of love called Plymouth. I am so pleased that in a world that is scary, my grandchildren are surrounded by a faith community like this one.
Let me make some specific observations and some generalized recommendations, after all, I am an expert, so you probably expect that, but I want to connect my thoughts with a specific text from the prophet Isaiah.
Isaiah is a complicated book that is really the patched together words of three or four different prophets who lived over the course of the two hundred years from about 700 until 500 years before Jesus. Some of these words, molded by tradition, have come to be associated with the birth of Jesus the Messiah. Some of these words remind us of the Christmas story, or as words of promise about a time when God will end history with peace and justice for all. These words are visionary words of power and beauty that make what I am going to say seem a little mundane, but one of the things I believe with my whole heart, is that if you want to build the "kindom" of God, you need to name it and claim it and live that promise with all the strength you can muster, right where you are. As the Wendell Berry poem I shared a couple of weeks ago said: “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts,"
This congregation and every congregation I know anything about has emerged from and may continue to exist in a tough time. Pandemic, political pandemonium, fear for the future, and change have become the new normal. We live in a world that seems to conspire against the possibility that people can trust one another.
I spoke a couple of weeks ago about what I see on the political horizon, let me talk church. Congregations are crashing. Some ministers are leaving the ministry and people have developed new ways of living that do not involve coming to worship or a willingness to volunteer or support financially, institutions. Whatever tensions existed in a church or other organizations, have become worse or more intense. Old wounds have been opened and many decent people have been reborn as curmudgeons, whose anger has soured them and strained relationships with others, particularly in the life of local congregations. Many folks seem content to stand on the outside and criticize, rather than build or rebuild for the sake of the future.
Last week I had a chance to speak to a young colleague serving a small congregation in New England. This young leader is one of the brightest and best in a new generation of clergy who see things, including the Gospel, a whole lot clearer than I ever did. They have been tested in the recent tough times, and instead of joining those who are leaving ministry, they have embraced the pressure with a sort of persistent love, not unlike the saints and mystics who emerged in the plague and strife torn Middle Ages to lead and to serve and to be the presence of Jesus in that time.
I asked him what he was experiencing in his congregation. He told me what I already knew and shared just now about the struggle and the pain and the brokenness. But then he surprised me.
I half expected to hear him say that he was discouraged and exhausted. Something I had heard from other colleagues too often in recent days. Instead, he went all Isaiah on me. I was sitting at Hal’s desk staring at this text from Isaiah and wondering what on earth I was going to say about it this morning and this young pastor spoke God’s truth and said that he had resolved in the fractured life of his post-pandemic congregation to act and speak in a new way. As I listened, he spoke words which I am audacious enough to suggest were heaven sent. He said this:
“I have resolved to treat each day as a first day in all my relationships. I have committed myself in the work I am doing in this congregation to declare that God is doing a new thing in my life and in this congregation and to act like it and invite whoever shows up here to act that way too. There is no room for too much past.”
And I was sitting there looking at Isaiah 65 while he was speaking, and reading the prophet’s words: “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. Be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating……” (Isaiah 65:17-18b)
Now that knocked the cobwebs off the center of my soul and spoke a word of life that I needed to hear and a word that I need to share.
Dear church, treat each new day as the first day, a day of rebirth and renewal and rejoicing. Do not remember the former things. Greet one another as if you are meeting for the first time. Work together as if the world depends on the work you are doing. Commit yourself to one of the mission partners of this congregation or one of the task force groups, like the environmental justice group or some committee in this community to make this a better town.
Mentor one another, be a second parent or grandparent to those attempting to mold a new generation of moral people in this place; care for one another. Remember that the person sitting next to you bears the image of God. Show up on Sunday or if you can’t, join the balcony, because praying and singing together, and studying an alternative reality that is love driven and Spirit led, is the only thing I know that can subvert and challenge the corrosive environment in which we are living. I have this nightmare vision in my mind of preachers and politicians standing arm in arm in front of a cross spewing vitriol and racial hatred and intolerance as if hanging a cross behind your head makes that OK. It’s not OK.
Dear Plymouth friends, do not hold on to some old hurt or some fractured reality of what has been or what might have been. Assume that God is still speaking and act like it. The best days of this congregation are not sometime in the past. According to the prophet Isaiah they are yet to be.
Do everything you can to grow this church family, numbers are not important, but they are. Money doesn’t matter, but it does. The only thing worse than not giving, is guilt giving. Give with a joyful generosity that will transform your life. Being a generous person is living Jesus and embracing your image as God’s child…. generosity is a life saver. To live the life abundant, give…..
Church growth experts, remember what I said about experts, forget most of what the growth experts have to say…. do mission, do love, do sincere caring and be seen doing all of that. You will suddenly find yourselves surrounded by people of all ages who are attracted by the irresistible power of Jesus love.
A minute ago, I asked you to study an alternative reality driven by love, now let me dare you to live in an alternative reality. Here’s how it goes: the way of Jesus is the way of love. It begins with God’s unconditional love for all of us and for this world and then it invites us into a partnership with that love.
That journey will lead this congregation into intense engagement with environmental justice, water conservation, serious engagement with white supremacy and the oppression of persons of color, especially indigenous people and the genocide that literally took place on the land on which we are worshiping. That will lead to all sorts of good trouble. But good trouble will put you exactly where God wants you to be in the good future God has in store for this congregation.
Finally, thank you for the gift of time in your presence. Next Sunday, I’ll be sitting out there giving thanks, which is exactly where I want to be on the last Sunday before we head home. Strength to you all! Amen.
An Easter Vision for All
A sermon related to Rev. 21:1-5a
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a wedding partner adorned for the wedding. 3And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals. God will dwell with them; they will be God’s peoples, and the Holy One will be with them; 4 God will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.’ 5 And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new...’
For the Word in Scripture
For the Word among us
For the Word within us
Thanks be to God
When things are tough, how do we know it’s going to turn out?
How do we stay the course and keep hope?
When problems seem so large, how do we keep going?
When you are young and wondering how to find your place and deal with the big world, how do you keep confidence and seek direction?
When you are old and life is short, where do you look for meaning and possibility?
This year, I’ll turn 59.
Might sound young to some, old to others.
But it sure makes me reflect on more than half a century of living;
highs and lows, mistakes and learning, growth and gratitude.
Yet, in all my years, I’ve never seen a couple of years like our last two. What about you?
We’ve had a new worldwide pandemic, the old pandemic of racism unveiled anew to many, the increasing effects of climate change seen in hurricanes and wildfires, armed white vigilantes in the streets and the Capitol, even in grocery stores.
But if you think the last couple of years have been tough to view, it can’t compete with the biblical vision we know as The Revelation received by the anonymous author we refer to as John. John’s vision has beasts, a sea monster, plagues, horses of multiple colors, the archangel Michael fighting a red dragon, a giant pit, a pregnant woman, and a day of God’s wrath.
Likely in a trance or non-ordinary state of consciousness, John saw and recorded this vision. It is not for the faint of heart nor is it for simple literal interpretation. And there is a lot of lousy interpretation out there that claims The Revelation of John as its verification; end of the world stuff predicting dates and events and such. It’s generally poor Bible analysis and bad theology.
The Revelation is best approached with humility and a good understanding of Hebrew symbols and Hebrew prophecy. Seen this way, Revelation can become what it was for the people of John’s time and for many Christians over the centuries;
an inspiring, encouraging vision that helped them in bad times to keep going, to faithfully resist empire and the false gods of society.
Indeed, The Revelation received by John was an underdog story that served them as they faced tough challenges and big questions of history and of their lives.
As the last book of the Bible, it is a kind of symbolic end, not necessarily in the sense of time ending, but of purpose, the telos, the end toward which we travel, the meaning of history and life. Of that which is symbolic of that time, we know that John was referring to the Roman empire as the beast and anti-Christ Presence. The Pax Romana, the dominating peace of Rome, that way of empire was not the Peace of Christ. John knew that. The early Christians knew that.
So those early followers and communities of Christ were called to live differently, to resist the way of Caesar and choose the way of Jesus. But when Rome is so big, when the system seems so pervasive, or even when life takes an unexpected and unwelcome turn, how do you do deal with that?
Many of the faithful looked to The Revelation of John as an alternative vision of what ultimate power was at play and trusted in that Divine power. Through this story, they rejected the conventional menu of what was inevitable and cultivated an alternative consciousness of what was possible. In this, they found hope.
Hebrew scholars like Walter Brueggemann and theologians like the late great James Cone will tell you that Pharoah and Caesar’s greatest power is the belief in their ultimate power and the limitation of possibility to change the status quo. There is nothing new in the empire. There is no different future, only anxiety about a different future (which might inspire something like Make Rome Great Again).
Maybe that is the genius of the Medieval Dominican mystic Meister Eckhart when he wrote: "God is the newest thing there is, the youngest thing there is. God is the beginning and, if we are united to God, we become new again."
Sound strange, God as the newest thing?
Maybe being part of a historic Protestant denomination and a congregation with institutional history and a solid brick building makes it harder for us to know the God who is always new. Maybe we relate more to God as a fixed external absolute, as the Ancient of Days. Or maybe we can attribute it to the repeated habits of heritage. (It is said that the last seven words of the church are “We have never done it that way.”)
Yet like the new births of that come to our congregation, God comes, too. Not just as the birther, as the mother, but as the new birth itself, as the new itself.
And new in Revelation means different.
Did you hear it in the Scripture passage read?
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; John said.
Both for those of the first centuries of the ancient near East and for us, the new heaven and the new earth has not come. This morning’s news from Buffalo, New York, and many mornings’ news tell us that. Pharoah, Caesar, demonic conscious and unconscious systems of domination still have power. And they take root in human souls such that violence against another person or group or country becomes a siren song, a tragic temptation, an illusion of solution: if only we or I could just get rid of or control this ‘other.’ Projecting inner tensions and fears and insecurities onto the ‘other’ and making them an enemy, a dehumanized object is as old as Cain and Abel and at the core of what keeps humanity alienated, in conflict, and out of step with Divine Love.
The Revelation of John is not without its troubling aspects, yet ultimately tells a new, alternative story where empire is not the last word nor the only possibility. Connecting with that Divine alternative vision is the beginning of liberation for us all. Through song, ritual, prayers, or art of this liberating story of reversal, where empire is not ultimate or final, we can connect to the power of the story of a new heaven and the new earth. We can anticipate its full coming by tasting and expressing and living it now. We can participate in its emergence now. We can live the new now, and in so doing allow its call to stay rooted in us and sustain us in the long arc of history.
And for those being crushed and exploited by the empire, whether the oppressive empires of history or the inner oppressions of the wounded soul, Good News comes when a new vision of possibility is made visible and, like communion, taken in, even if only in part. When this taste of inner liberation comes, hope comes, affirmation comes, and fortifies the spirit for endurance and for liberating action.
As Choctaw nation music artist Red Eagle raps in his song, “Still Here,”
Wounded Knee And we still here
Sand Creek And we still here
Cortez And we still here
Slavery And we still here
Small Pox And we still here
Boarding Schools And we still here
Damn it feels good to be a native
Damn it feels good to be a native
Good News comes to those who hear and trust the God who says ‘See, I am making all things new...’ even in the midst of empire, injustice, and violence.
It comes when you truly hear Jesus say ‘the first shall be last, and the last shall be first.’
It comes when you know that, even if in the short term of history, it looks like the forces of death and oppression are winning, you know the story of the Resurrected One who came in a lowly stable, lived with, taught, and healed the lowly ones, and who, dying with the lowly ones, conquered even the power of death.
As we continue in the resonance of Easter, our sacred image from John’s Revelation reminds us that we arrive together in the end in a New Heaven and a New Earth. It is an Easter vision for all people and for all Creation.
In the words of Lyla June, Navajo Nation artist in her song All Nations Rise
“this time, it isn’t Indians versus Cowboys. No. This time it is all the beautiful races of humanity together on the SAME side and we are fighting to replace our fear with LOVE. This time bullets, arrows, and cannon balls won’t save us. The only weapons that are useful in this battle are the weapons of truth, faith, and compassion.”
Truth, faith, and compassion. The alternative way of Jesus.
Cultivating and living in these ways are how we participate in the coming of this Easter Vision for All, God’s Beloved Community, a New Heaven and a New Earth. This is what we do to be an Easter People amidst times such as these. This is what we do to allow God to dwell with mortals, Immanuel.
Finally, a brief word for our graduates from Sister Ilia Delio, a Sister of St. Francis and Professor at Georgetown University who says,
God is always new; life is always new. Every end is a new beginning and every arrival, a new departure. There are no dead ends in life unless we ourselves die in despair.
For you graduates, I say do not despair, but have faith in the God who says
‘See, I am making all things new...’
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
It’s been a while… It is so good to see you all here this morning! I would imagine that it’s a little bit different being back in your spiritual home this morning, even if you’ve been coming to our in-person 6:00 p.m. service over the last month. I will tell you that it is certainly different for me and my colleagues not being alone (or with two or three other people) in the sanctuary preaching or singing or speaking into a camera lens, hoping that you would see it a few days later.
Homecomings can be a warm and wonderful experience, and I hope that is true for you today. And I know we have some folks who have only ever worshiped with us online, so I hope that you will find this to be a warm homecoming to your new faith community!
But some homecomings are fraught, and that seems to have been the case for Jesus when he returns home to Nazareth. In the chapters leading into today’s episode in Mark, Jesus has offered parables, stilled a storm, purged demons, healed a woman who touched the hem of his garment, and raised Jairus’s daughter from the dead. Jesus has been busy! Mark has described him as being filled with wisdom and amazing abilities as a healer…but not everybody gets it, or wants to get it; not everyone is quite ready to agree that he’s the real deal. Can’t you just hear the naysayers scoffing and saying, “Yeah…as if! This is Mary’s son who was born before her marriage to Joseph the carpenter! Trust me, he’s nothing special.” “Yeah, you know his brother James, what a loser! And his sisters are as ugly as old hens!” “I’m just not happy that he’s back here making waves, trying to change things, and disturbing the way we’ve always done things. And why didn’t he heal this arthritic knee of mine?!”
Naysayers are always part of the picture, but what interests me is that the writer of Mark’s gospel highlights them in this episode. The reason, I suspect, is to provide the reader with a negative example not to follow.
Teddy Roosevelt delivered an address at the Sorbonne in 1910 after serving as president. (You may have heard Brené Brown quote this in her book, Daring Greatly.) Here is a snippet:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” *
If we never take risks, if we never rock the boat, if we never stand up publicly for what we believe most deeply, we run the risk of turning into the critics and naysayers that surround the man in the arena and the man of Nazareth.
Courage is one of the virtues that we don’t make enough of in 21st-century American Christianity. It doesn’t take much courage to sit back and say, “Isn’t this dude the carpenter, Mary’s kid?” It does take courage to say, “I’ll follow him and change my perspectives, my priorities, and even my life.”
It takes courage to stand up to help shift the status quo, to say that Black Lives DO matter, that we will use all varieties of our privilege in order to make things better for all of us and not just for ourselves and people who look like us, think like us, eat like us, believe like us. It takes courage to speak up when a friend or colleague makes an insensitive remark about race or gender. It takes courage to say, “I’m going to look beyond my own self-interest and act for the good of the whole.”
I know it is difficult to be in the arena, and we all have been there together during the pandemic. We’ve been trying to keep our families together, our wits together, our souls together, and our church together. It’s bigger and broader than individuals, it is systemic. You and I have just finished running a marathon, and we made it. It has been a costly race. I don’t know about you, but I am feeling exhausted and need to recuperate.
In a few weeks, you are going to hear about our new Strategic Plan, which the Leadership Council accepted at last month’s meeting. And it’s going to take courage on your part to put this aspirational document into practice: to bring the words on the page into life. This morning I will share the vision part of the plan:
“Plymouth’s purpose for the next three to five years is to embody beloved community with God, each other, and our neighbors. We will enhance our communications and deepen engagement within the church. We will be a visible force for social, racial, and environmental justice. This focus will help Plymouth’s already vibrant community look to the future and grow in numbers and in spirit.”
The first thing I want to emphasize is that this is a plan for three to five years in our life together. The implications of that are that we don’t have to make this happen all at once or tomorrow or even in 2022 or 2023.
Musical tempos are marked in different ways. Allegro means play at a brisk tempo, and we sometimes do that at Plymouth…in fact, I’d say that allegro is our normal tempo. But during the pandemic, we have had to increase the tempo to presto, which is quick (as in let’s pivot again and again and again.) But if music were always to be played a presto, it would be hard to listen to and even harder to play. We need to vary our pace after running this marathon. We need to catch our breath. We need to learn to play andante, which is moderate tempo, a walking pace. Because we’ve just run the marathon, if we try to run a second one nonstop, I fear we won’t finish the race. Remember, it’s a three-to-five-year race!
Friends, it is going to take courage to bring this vision to life. It is going to take courage to realize, to accept, and to encourage that things will change. It is going to take courage for us to be the person in the arena and not the crowd of critics. It’s going to take courage to learn to play andante.
History will not remember us for maintaining the status quo, for looking only inward at what we ourselves need, for being quiescent in the face of sweeping societal and political challenges. But more important than what history will remember us for, what will God remember us for? Are we going to strive valiantly with our “faces marred by dust and sweat and blood?” Are we those who are daring greatly or are we timid souls who neither know victory or defeat? Are we going to spend ourselves on the worthy cause of our faith? Are we going to be hometown prophets who are willing to be seen as those without honor, even as we are doing the work God calls us to?
Being a Christian, especially in this century much more so than the last, takes guts and faith and love and courage. “Beloved community” is a phrase coined by the American philosopher Josiah Royce and picked up by MLK in the 1950s. More than an efficient corporate structure, more than a faceless organization, more than a cold-hearted institution, Plymouth must continue to embody beloved community that puts love for God and one another first.
But here is what I know about Plymouth: We’ve got this. Time and again, I’ve seen us prevail where others failed. I’ve seen us buck the trends and do things others thought impossible. I’ve seen us use our faith and determination to turn things upside down, because we’re willing to go the extra mile.
We — this community of faith — have what it takes. Our fellow members need us. Our children need us. The coming generations need us. Our community needs us. Our denomination needs us. God needs us.
We’ve got this. Welcome home, you hometown prophets!
© 2021 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
*speech at the Sorbonne, April 23, 1910
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.