The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
I don’t know if it has occurred to you yet, but for Christians, Holy Week has a different depth this year. In other years, the Palm Sunday procession that we rehearse is the beginning of a week-long story that unfolds into resurrection — we know how the story ends, even as it passes through tragedy. And that ultimate message of Easter Sunday is certainly going to come, but this year, it will come as we are walking through the valley of the shadow of death. I imagine that we will have a more visceral response to the gospel stories not just of Palm Sunday, but of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and that “in-between time” — that threshold — which lies between crucifixion and resurrection. I encourage you this week to let the stories have their way with you; let them influence your thoughts and feelings, and know that you are not alone, and neither were those earliest followers of Jesus.
It has been a difficult week in our household. In addition to the big-picture pandemic news, we learned that Chumley, our 11-year-old golden retriever had untreatable cancer, and on Friday, he was euthanized in his backyard. For me, and for some of you, our pets are not “just” animals, they are members of our families. They are soul-mates, and I’ve thought of Chumley as my spirit animal, and source of unconditional love. We who have pets need to have courage to make those tough end-of-life decisions, especially when we are not able to ask your pet’s pain level or to know if they are ready to go. It was a wrenching decision for me to make with Jane Anne.
People, though, do have the ability to make end-of-life decisions. I cannot imagine what it would take to make such a decision for a parent or spouse who had not left any advanced directive. If you do not have a living will and a durable medical power of attorney, please call your attorney this week to have that done…it may spare your family some agony. If nothing else, go to fivewishes.org and download the Five Wishes for your end-of-life care. It takes courage to address this issue and to fill out the form, but your courage will be rewarded. We have several copies in the church office, and you can leave a message for Barb Gregory, and she will mail one to you, as long as we have copies remaining.
We live in peculiar times, and I can’t believe that I’m talking with you about courageous decision-making at the end of life on Palm Sunday. On further reflection, though, it occurs to me that this is exactly what Palm Sunday is about: Jesus making the courageous decision to come to Jerusalem during a tense holiday, when the occupying Roman troops were there in force and on high alert. I suspect that Jesus, like Gandhi and King, knew that standing up for justice just might get you killed.
I think we can get caught up in the idea that “Well, Jesus was superhuman, which is why he had the abundance of courage to face the possibility of crucifixion.” And there is some truth in that notion, but there is also an undeniably human element in this chapter of Jesus’ life. He needed to call up incredible faith in order to face death squarely in the face. And there are incredibly human moments, too, that you will hear us read about on Maundy Thursday. It is so very human to hear Jesus say, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup [this impending death] from me. Yet, not my will, but yours, be done.” [Luke 22:42]
Holy Week calls upon us — normal, everyday Christians — to summon up the courage not just that Jesus knew, but that his women followers knew as well, because, as you know, they continue to show up. And we catch a glimpse of the male disciples’ humanity in fleeing immediately after the crucifixion, but then returning remorsefully. Courage comes sooner to some of us than it does to others. In part, courage depends on the ways we are called to live into it — the occasions in our lives that demand courage.
In the last few weeks, where have you seen people called into a place of courage? Not the easy berth, but having to risk much for the benefit of the whole? You and I are living in times when we will be called upon to act with courage, in smaller or greater ways. We are living in times when we will be called to make sacrifices, in smaller or greater ways, for the good of the whole. One of the elements in you that will enable you to act with courage and to sacrifice when called upon is the same thing that enabled Jesus to do so: your trust in God, your heart-and-soul embrace of the God who is present with us in every step we take.
Howard Thurman, the great 20th century minister and mystic, wrote some wise words that I’ll share with you:
Courage is not a blustering manifestation of strength and power. Sometimes courage is only revealed in the midst of great weakness and greater fear. It is often the ultimate rallying of all the resources of personality to face a crucial and devastating demand. And this is not all. There is a quiet courage that comes from an inward spring of confidence in the meaning and significance of life. Such courage is an underground river, flowing far beneath the shifting events of one’s experience, keeping alive a thousand little springs of action. [Howard Thurman, Meditations of the Heart. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1953 and 1981), p. 52.]
So, that “inward spring of confidence” is faith. It is the faith that Jesus calls the disciples toward…the faith that Christ calls US to engage. When Jesus rode into Jerusalem and people shouted “Hosanna, Son of David!” they weren’t simply cheering him on. Hosanna means “Save us!” That gives Palm Sunday a different spin…an emphasis not so much of triumph, but of reliance on the faith in God that will not let us down: the faith that gives us courage, even in the face of death.
As we walk through this pandemic, our wider community needs you both now and when the virus is under control. We need to stay home and help those in high-risk groups. And once we are out of the woods, we will need to have the courage to rebuild and renew together, taking the lessons we will have learned through this global experience. We’ll need the courage it takes not simply to bear a death, but also to bear a resurrection.
It takes courage to face a diagnosis we would rather not hear, to find that you’ve been laid off, to endure the demise of a relationship. It takes courage to face a pandemic. Courage can wrest us from a sense of powerlessness to a sense of carrying on, moving forward, doing what we can do. If our lives were not fraught with fear and without adversity, we could never experience courage. Time and time again, I have seen courage in the faces of this congregation. And your courage inspires me.
Yesterday, I received a Facebook message in response to Chumley’s death, and it used the lovely Italian expression of encouragement, “Coraggio!” which not only means “courage,” but also just what Jesus was conveying to his followers: “Hang in there…keep your chin up…don’t give up…keep trying.” And it’s that everyday courage the apostles needed after the Resurrection to get the Christian movement started and to spread it beyond the Jewish homeland. And it is that everyday courage Jesus is calling us to right now.
We all have favorite hymns, and “God of Grace and God of Glory” is right near the top of my list. (And not just because it is set to the stirring Welsh hymn, Cwm Rhondda.) Listen to these words:
God of grace and God of glory,
on your people pour your power.
Crown your ancient church’s story;
bring its bud to glorious flower.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage
for the facing of this hour, for the facing of this hour.
From the evils that surround us
and assail the savior’s way,
from the fears that long have bound us —
free our hearts for faith and praise.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage
for the living of these days, for the living of these days.
For me, those powerful words have new meaning in light of the pandemic we are living through. Others have gone before us, showing us the way to live with faith and with courage. And I know that this congregation has the faith and courage for the living of these days.
© 2020 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.