I Corinthians 12.1-11
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
I see so much giftedness in this congregation, more than in any of the six UCC congregations I’ve been a part of.
Growing up, I was confirmed in a UCC church that counted as members several titans of industry: the CEO of Exxon, the CEO of General Electric, the CEO of Textron, and the president of Columbia Records. Some of them used their gifts of position and wealth for the good of the whole community, not simply for personal gain. (Suffice to say, none of them was investing millions to fly into low space orbit on a boutique space shot.) Still, I see more giftedness at Plymouth.
In 2007 during my first sabbatical, I was staying on the Isle of Man with two of our members, Doug and Carol Fox, who are amazing, delightful people. Carol is an ordained United Methodist clergywoman who had served on the Isle and Doug is a climate scientist who had done some consulting with the Manx government. They live half the year in Fort Collins and half on the Isle of Man, and they invited me to stay and explore Manx Celtic Christianity. While I was there, the doorbell rang, and it was the FedEx delivery man with a large, flat package from Oslo for Doug. When he opened it, he showed us a certificate that bore his name, sharing the Nobel Prize as part of Al Gore’s team. Doug and Carol share their gifts with our Celtic group, with pastoral care coverage, with teaching adult education. But they are not alone! You don’t need a Ph.D. or an M.Div. or a B.A. to serve and to share your God-given gifts at Plymouth. I see people working their tails off to keep this community running, and it’s been especially apparent during the pandemic…deacons adapting worship space, trustees taking on lots of work, volunteers helping in the office, Stephen Ministers providing care, Council navigating uncharted territory, Christian Formation shifting to online and hybrid, the AV team learning a new sound and livestream system, Outreach and Mission feeding immigrants and settling refugees, Congregational Life starting new forms of connection by text, Zoom coffee hour and now Zoom cocktail hour, Stewardship finding new ways to reach you and invite your financial support, and who would ever have thought Plymouth would have something called a Pandemic Team to keep us safe?
Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “If you want to be important—wonderful. If you want to be recognized—wonderful. If you want to be great—wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s a new definition of greatness. By giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.” A heart full of grace and a soul generated by love. Those are words to live by.
Cornel West says, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” And I think that’s right, and I’d add a slightly different spin: Service happens when we put love into action.
One of the keys in the life of the church and in the communal life of the first followers of Jesus is servant leadership. According to Robert Greenleaf, who coined that term in the 1960s, servant leadership “begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve.” And if we believe that the love of God is planted within each of us, so is service. One of the earliest parts of the New Testament declares that Jesus, “emptied himself, taking on the form or a slave.” Imagine the love that it takes to empty yourself, deny your privilege and power and to turn that love toward service. Washing the dusty (and probably smelly) feet of his disciples is an act of love that embodies servant leadership. It is no accident that the Latin verb ministro is the verb to serve and that it is the root of the English word ministry.
In the church we serve one another using the gifts God gives us because we are invited — commanded — by Jesus to love one another. Perhaps your gift is hospitality (which we will really need when we get back together in person) or teaching or organizing people or community outreach and justice work or carpentry or communications. We all have been given gifts by God, and they are not given to us to be hoarded...not simply for our own benefit. They are given to us to share with one another.
Beloved community was an important concept for MLK, and it is the linchpin of our Strategic Plan at Plymouth as we focus on embodying beloved community. Reconciliation. Self-giving love and service. These are the hallmarks of beloved community.
Dr. King said, “The end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opposers into friends. The type of love that I stress here … is agape … an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. It is the love of God working in the lives of [women and] men. This is the love that may well be the salvation of our civilization.”
Beloved community and service start not from outside, but from within the heart of the servant through a God-given impulse to love and to serve. And it needs to be awakened and nurtured in order to thrive, not just for children, but for all of us. Parents do that. Teachers do that. Mentors do that. Fellow congregants do that. Even ministers do that.
It is very countercultural in a society that sees scarcity rather than God’s abundance. That says ME instead of WE. That creates gated communities while people live on the streets. That builds walls instead of finding solutions based on statesmanship. That literally idolizes assault rifles while children are mowed down in classrooms. That cannot accept the outcome of an election because it didn’t suit their candidate. That won’t wear a mask in public while the Omicron variant rages. That thinks that maybe Black lives really don’t matter.
There is a lot of brokenness in the world, my friends. There is evil afoot that we don’t even see and that sometimes passes itself off with false claims of individualism and patriotism. One of the gifts God has given to each of us, has given to you, is the capacity for love and service. It is only love and service that will overcome evil. And that is within our reach if only we choose to engage it.
My dear fellow members, this congregation has infinite capacity to be part of the solution to spread beloved community beyond our doors. Each of you has the kernel of God’s love and light within you… How will you use it?
I leave you with a quote from Marianne Williamson. You may know this quote because Nelson Mandela used it in his inaugural address.
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It'’ not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
It is up to us how we put God’s love and God’s gifts to use. Will it be through service? That’s up to you. One thing I do know if that God’s world needs you — needs us — to rise to the occasion, especially in this strange time, to stand up in love and in service.
© 2022 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.