The Rev. Hal Chorpenning, Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
July 2, 2023
I love the United States. As we near Independence Day, I acknowledge that we are up to our neck in problems. Yet, I don’t think that we are beyond redemption. One of the key issues we need to address is refocusing on the collective good, which is at the heart of divisive politics, wealth disparity, and climate change, among others. And it’s slow work.
You may wonder what that has to do with the rather difficult text Jim read from Matthew’s gospel. There is quite a mix of things going on: Jesus tells us that we have individual worth, and that God knows even the number of hairs on our heads (a significantly lower number for some of us than for others).
The next section seems bizarre, because of Jesus’ nonviolence. Where does this “I have come not to bring peace, but a sword” thing come from? It draws on and echoes the prophet Micah, who encourages us not to put ultimate faith in the people, even our families, but rather to put our trust in God.
What Jesus is talking about is reshaping our family ties in order to build the new community of his followers. Think about the fishermen who were Jesus’ first disciples. Jesus tells them to leave their nets and follow him. That isn’t easy either for the disciples or for the families they left behind.
How’s that for supporting “family values?” (Whenever one of our more conservative brethren trots out that phrase it makes me wonder if they’ve ever read the four gospels.)
What Jesus is doing is ripping the fabric of society. This is subversive, unpopular stuff. But as he deconstructs the traditional family unit, he is putting something else in its place.
Two chapters later, as a crowd surrounds Jesus and his own mother and brothers are trying to squeeze their way in to see Jesus, he quips, “’Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ And pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’”
This new family eventually becomes the church. We are the family of Jesus when we do the will of God, and the best way to judge the will of God is by looking to the words and the way of Jesus. Sometimes we even refer to “our church family.”
Last week, Don and Sherry Bundy sent me a link to a really interesting New York Times opinion piece called, “What Churches Offer that ‘Nones’ Still Long For.” Nones, by the way, are people who have no religious affiliation, and one scholar surmises that one in five is an Atheist (who is sure God doesn’t exist), a second is an Agnostic (who questions the existence of God), and the other three are unaligned with any particular faith tradition but think that God is there. Clearly, that is a diverse group of people. A key asset that churches, mosques, synagogues offer is community. And in an age of detachment and isolation, it’s more important than ever.
In the article, one young man in his 20s tells of losing his job and asking his congregation to pray for him during their prayers of the people. After the service was over, another member came us and said, “Son, if you need a job, you can come work for me tomorrow.” The journalist continues: “While that might sound like a scene from a Frank Capra movie, church really does wind up being one of the few places that people from different walks of life can interact with and help one another.” She continues, “I asked every sociologist I interviewed whether communities created around secular activities outside of houses of worship could give the same level of wraparound support that churches, temples, and mosques are able to offer. Nearly across the board, the answer was no.”
Intergenerational community doesn’t just happen, it has to be created and sustained. Faith communities that draw on multiple generations can do amazing cross-fertilization among their members. As you heard Brooklyn say a few weeks ago, teens who have older folks in their lives (who know their names) tend to have a far easier road ahead than those who do not. Getting to know some teens might be a blessing to some of you who are elders and might be experiencing a sense of loneliness and isolation.
Here is something the article’s author misses: it takes work to create and sustain community. It doesn’t just happen; we have to be intentional about being engaged and involved. It takes each of us committing ourselves to get involved in the community.
A lot of that happens behind the scenes here, so you may not know that a member of your Plymouth family had to go by Wilbur’s to buy port and to Whole Foods to buy bread and then prepare today’s communion. Nobody waves a magic wand…people work to make that happen. You may wonder how our trees and shrubs get trimmed and the windows washed and the weeds pulled…members work to make that happen. You may not realize that there are members of our congregation — Faith Community Nurses, Stephen Ministers, Congregational Visitors — who add to the pastoral care provided by our ministers. Perhaps you’ve wondered who makes decisions that affect the congregation, and there are six boards as well as a Leadership Council who do that as volunteers. That takes time and commitment. There are so many more volunteers who make this congregation vital, and each of them helps create community. That investment of time and intention creates what Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam calls “social capital” in his book, Bowling Alone.
Here is a clip from a new documentary about Putnam’s work and ways we can recover some social capital. [View trailer for “Join or Die.”].
Here is the rub: we have become a nation of people who have shifted so far toward radical individualism and independence that we’ve lost the communal compass bearing guiding our society. We forget that we are in this together. We have lost the thread of our INTERdependence that held together a disparate nation. But Putnam asserts that we can turn the tables by leveraging our involvement in community organizations like churches. This is crucially important for our society.
I’d like to go back to the scripture for today, because it helps us understand why churches are different than the Lion’s Club, Soroptimists, Kiwanis, or soccer league, or youth theater — all of which are great! The New York Times article states, “A soccer team can’t provide spiritual solace in the face of death, it probably doesn’t have a weekly charitable call and there’s no sense of connection to a heritage that goes back generations.” But there is something even deeper that the journalist doesn’t capture.
Church is different, because we have formed and are forming a different type of community that exists because Jesus called us to become part of this new, INTERdependent community that cares for one another, for the widow and the orphan, the alien and the stranger. And we do it as an expression of our love of God.
One Sunday about six months ago, a young Palestinian man named Darwish came into our church needing food, shelter, and guidance. The first thing that happened was that Brooklyn and Mike McBride made him a cappuccino…an even better start than offering a cup of cold water that Jesus mentions. Then Darwish talked with Jane Anne and a group of concerned folks who helped him get student housing, work on an asylum application, got him healthcare, greeted his wife and son when they arrived from Jordan. And today, he has been accepted into a Ph.D. program at CSU in the College of Engineering. Nobody asked if Darwish was a Christian or if he had any interest in becoming one. Each person on “Team Darwish” acted from a sense of Christlike compassion, and it changed Darwish’s life.
We are a community that has incredible potential to grow in our faith, our commitment, our involvement…our INTERdependence. Isn’t that the kind of faith community you want to be a part of? Don’t we embrace the values and vision you want your children and grandchildren to inherit?
We simply cannot do such things all on our own. We need a strong, committed community to help all of us live into our Christian faith, as an INTERdependent community bound together by covenant. Christianity is a team sport!
Here is another secret: We can’t do any of this without you. The magic only happens when we all pull together as a family of faith. If you want to be part of the movement, if you want to get more involved, we can help! We have an easy-to-access online tool called Ministry Match, which links your desire to help with places where it’s needed. It takes less than five minutes to sign up and enter your preferences at plymouthucc.org/ministrymatch.
So, even as we celebrate our nation’s independence from Great Britain, I invite you to celebrate INTERdependence Day here at Plymouth. Right here, right now. Amen.
© 2023 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact hal at plymouthucc.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
 “What Churches Offer that ‘Nones’ Still Long For” by Jessica Grose in New York Times, June 28, 2023