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.