The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
If you have two sons, like I do, this parable sounds strikingly familiar. In years past, I could imagine Cameron playing video games on his X-Box on a Saturday morning and me asking if he would please mow the lawn and Cam begging off with some excuse about homework. And then asking Chris, who would say, “Sure, dad,” but then he’d get involved in something else and forget about the task at hand. (Mind you, I’m just plugging their names in here…they’d always have jumped right up and mowed the lawn. ? ) I might have been disappointed in Cam’s first response, but not that he came through in the end. And Chris just flaked out on me. Which son would I have thanked heartily for “doing the will of their father?”
But the parable is even more pointed than that. By bringing tax collectors and prostitutes into the narrative — outsiders and lowlifes rejected by the good Temple-going people of Jerusalem — Jesus brings the generalized parable into his own present day. It isn’t they who are supposed to “get it,” to understand what John was and Jesus is talking about…but they do. There is a motif in the New Testament about the people who should understand, don’t and the people who would ordinarily not be “in the know” are the ones who get it. I mean we all know that there is no such thing as a “Good” Samaritan, or astrologers from Persia who understand that a newborn babe is king of the Jews.
Well, where does that leave us? You and I may look a lot more like the scribes and the Pharisees than we’d like, don’t we? We’re the ones who are supposed to understand the message of Jesus, but don’t you suspect that there are times when we are the ones who don’t have a clue? I know that most of us at Plymouth don’t fit the current stereotype of American Christianity: closed-minded, unthinking, anti-science, bigoted, and knowing that if we are “saved,” then you other people certainly aren’t. And yet… And yet…there are times when we can come off as the ones who are meant to understand Jesus…but can’t or won’t.
For most of us, it isn’t a matter of intellectual firepower that holds us back, rather it concerns commitment and showing up. This is where trust comes into play: “John the Baptizer came to you on the path of righteousness, but you didn’t trust him, but the tax collectors and prostitutes did.” Trusting Jesus is primarily an activity of the human heart, rather than just the mind. Tying our active minds together with the feelings of our hearts, connecting the two, is a key task for many of us in the UCC, where we encourage you to “bring your brain to church on Sunday.” Well, I certainly hope you bring your heart, too.
This parable is about trusting and then doing. It’s about being truly present in the service of God’s realm on earth. It’s about showing up when you get the invitation. (And if you’re listening to this right now, consider yourself invited!)
Years ago, when I was a young adult, my former in-laws were being invited to dozens of weddings as people my age were getting married, and they frankly found it a bit tiresome…RSVPing, blocking off a weekend, buying a gift, going to the service and reception. And one time, they simply responded that they were not able to come. A few months later, the groom, Paul Blandford, ran into my former father-in-law, who is a really good guy, and said how disappointed he was that he and his wife couldn’t make it to the wedding. And then it hit my former father-in-law like a ton of bricks: When you are invited to a wedding or hear of someone’s funeral or memorial service, you go and show up. The code word in their family for times you need to show up became “It’s a Paul Blandford.” Have you ever declined an invitation to show up…to wedding, to an event, as a volunteer, as a leader? It may be easier at times to say, “No, thanks,” but it doesn’t move us ahead as a body of people, whether it’s a family, a congregation, a community, or a nation.
How do you show up…when you cannot physically show up? Covid-19 has been disruptive in so many ways, and we get to choose whether to connect or to hide…and there is a time for each. But let’s focus on connection. I’m doing a memorial service this afternoon, and only the immediate family are attending because of the pandemic. That’s a way to be present at a tender moment is each other’s lives, albeit in a different way. And there are other ways on a personal level to show up: pick up the telephone and call someone, pull out the notecards you got for Christmas and put pen to paper and send a note, really listen deeply to a friend or loved one. I see people at Plymouth showing up in all kinds of ways in the midst of the pandemic. Members shopping for those who are especially vulnerable to the coronavirus, Our Habitat ministry team invited me to a virtual Habitat breakfast over Zoom in a few weeks. You, our congregation sent a special gift of $10,000 to La Foret to help provide pandemic relief, in addition to the $20,000 you all contributed individually for other forms of pandemic relief. Our Immigration ministry team has been at work collecting cleaning and household supplies for immigrant families. Our Stewardship Board got a beautiful brochure written, designed, produced, and mailed in record time. Thanks for saying “yes” and showing up.
Sometimes this pandemic causes us (especially us introverts) to withdraw in pain or grief or anxiety, and we don’t want to connect through one more damned Zoom meeting. And I cannot imagine how incredibly busy and stressed so many of our parents are trying to manage kids doing remote learning, working from home themselves, and trying to have a life. (And I do see a parent, who teaches chemistry at CSU now online, serves as this congregation’s moderator showing up to play violin this morning.)
So, this is a gentle reminder that oftentimes, we feel better when we show up, when we connect, when we make the effort, we feel better for having done so. And when we show up, we need to be fully present, not just physically present. We must bring our souls as well as our bodies. Showing up as faith in action is even more important, because we’ll probably end up feeling more connected to God as well.
Woody Allen supposedly said that 90 percent of life is showing up. And I think there is truth in that, no matter who actually said it. Consider this: if you THINK about going to the gym, but don’t show up, you won’t get in better shape. If you only THINK about your faith, but never offer a prayer, pick up a Bible, do an act of compassion for someone you don’t know, your faith might stay flabby, too. When we show up, we don’t just do it for ourselves, we show up for each other, and during a pandemic, it’s even harder, less convenient, more costly, but we can’t go it alone.
I invite you to be like the son who eventually unplugs from the X-box and mows the lawn. Follow the lead of the tax collectors and prostitutes who trust the way of God’s kingdom, here and now and still unfolding. And as our worship continues and in the week ahead, may you open your heart and your mind to the God who created you, invites you, blesses you, and redeems you.
© 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.