The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
The day of Pentecost is often referred to as the birthday of the church, marking this episode when the Holy Spirit was poured out on the followers of Jesus, giving them the power to hear the proclamation in their own language. The story of the Tower of Babel results in people being deprived of a common language, and this story in the Acts of the Apostles is a reversal of that mythic episode in Genesis. It isn’t about glossolalia, speaking in tongues, it’s about understanding across cultures, which seems especially important in our current day and age.
We know that Jesus was trying to reform Judaism, not attempting to form a new religion. The followers of Jesus, his disciples and others who joined with them after his death, continued to be worship in Jerusalem and throughout the diaspora as Jews, and we see conflict arise as the movement begins to extend beyond the boundaries of the synagogue, as non-Jews begin to be included without rites of initiation or being bound by the strictures of observation of things like dietary laws. The church was essentially born of a crisis within Judaism and the ways it was unable to incorporate Gentile believers without the barriers of ritual purity. Jewish Christians, like the apostle Paul, who argued in favor of inclusion, carried the day, paving the way for the expansion of the movement around the Mediterranean Basin and now around the world.
So, we have the birth of the church, inspired by the movement of the Holy Spirit. Has it ever occurred to you that without that event, you probably wouldn’t be Christian? Unless you had relatives in Syria or Turkey or the Jewish homeland, your ancestors probably worshiped other Gods in the first century, whether Wotan or Dagda or Aphrodite or animist spirits. And without that wider inclusion, Christianity may have died out. The universalizing spirit of the early church opened it up to all cultures.
A wag once said, “We were promised the kingdom of God, but all we got was the church.” And there are times when I feel that way, too. I find it dispiriting at times when churches around the world and here in the U.S. are busy trying to erect barriers about who can receive communion and who can or cannot be ordained because of who they love and whose gender identity makes them unwelcome. You and I may sense moments of frustration with Plymouth when we don’t quite measure up to our best aspirations. When it does happen, it often manifests itself as grouchiness and self-concern, a lot of which comes from our own anxiety. Those moments are thankfully rare at Plymouth, but the frequency has increased during the pandemic. I can attest that there have been moments during the pandemic, when I have not been at my emotional and spiritual best. How about you? God doesn’t expect us to be perfect…just trying our best to love one another as Christ loves us.
All of us have been through a struggle these past 15 months. We’ve been isolated from one another, worried about our own and others’ mortality. We’ve lived in a politically divided nation that continues to wade through the mire of lies and insurrection. We’ve been reawakened to the realities of American racism and violence against people of color. And last summer we had the largest wildfire in Colorado history right over the hills.
As a community and as a culture, we have been traumatized. No wonder we’re tired! No wonder we have a lot of pent-up frustration! No wonder we feel hopeless, depressed, isolated, or as Adam Grant called it in the New York Times, “languishing.” All of us, even your clergy, have run an incredible gauntlet of challenges just surviving the past year. So, what do we do about it as we stand at the threshold of new post-pandemic possibilities? Part of the solution is to acknowledge that the trauma and “languishing” exist. If we take a good, long pause and sit with the pain we’ve been through, it allows us to start dealing with it. We can also stop trying to control the things we cannot change and turn some of that over to God, as you heard our visiting scholar say last week. Here is the rub: if we don’t acknowledge and deal with our collective trauma, our reactions to it come out sideways: in bitterness, pettiness, shaming and blaming, and unproductive anger.
I’m also aware that there have been mental health issues great and small among our congregation during the pandemic, and if you are feeling persistent anxiety or depression or hopelessness, please get help. Call me or Jane Anne, and we can help you find a therapist or psychologist, or call your physician. You don’t need to face those challenges alone.
We’ll also address our post-pandemic challenges by leaning into our faith. By turning to God, the church across the millennia has recovered from tragedy, pestilence, and mayhem. And as part of that same church universal, we can recover, too.
The board of directors at La Foret have a three-year plan for recovery with the themes: survive – revive – thrive. Not everything is going to just pop back into shape the way it was before the pandemic. We are in a liminal space, on a threshold between what is … and what God is calling us to become, and that can be both unsettling and exciting. We’ve survived, and reviving is going to take hard work, and not just from your church staff…it’s going to take each of us, coming together, working with the Holy Spirit, and chipping in our efforts, gifts, and faith for the good of the whole. When I say whole, I don’t just mean Plymouth.
The pandemic also has led some of us to focus inward on what we want, rather than outward on what others need. We need to look beyond ourselves and our own wants to see what our community needs and what God needs us to do. If we are, as I claim, an outpost of the kingdom of God, it obliges us to move beyond our narrow preferences and peculiarities for the greater good. In order to revive ourselves and our corner of God’s realm, we are going to have to be countercultural, leaving behind “me and mine” and moving toward “us and ours.” We are going to have to try and hear and understand the metaphorical foreign language our sisters and brothers are speaking, just like those first followers of the Jesus on Pentecost. To intentionally misquote John F. Kennedy, “Ask not what God can do for you…ask what you can do for God.”
We have an incredible opportunity as we move beyond the pandemic and as we get back into circulation: we can grasp the invitation of the Holy Spirit and help to rebirth the church. There may not be tongues of fire above any of our heads, but if we think that God is still speaking and the Holy Spirit is acting in the world, we can be co-creators in this moment of rebirth.
This is no time to be complacent or lukewarm Christians. It is no time to say, “I’m taking the summer off from church,” or “I’m soooo tired of broadcast services.” As I intimated in last week’s reflection, we need to come on back and wade in! Our Strategic Planning Team is almost done with the Plan, which we hope to present to Leadership Council in June. After that, there will be Strategy Implementation Teams formed to put legs on the ideas generated by our congregation. This process will be lay-led and lay-driven, so if you are asked, please consider the invitation very carefully, and try not to see it as just one more commitment, but as a way to live into your faith and the ministry to which you have been called as the church. Our team has been outstanding, and half of the group is in their 30s, and I am grateful for their commitment and insight.
The church isn’t just another civic organization like Rotary or the PTA. It isn’t just like Public Television or United Way. And the reason is twofold: the church universal was birthed 2,000 years ago by the movement of the Holy Spirit and we are guided by the presence of that same Spirit. We affirm that when we covenant with each other as members of this church. When we take an action as a church, it isn’t because we are good progressives or good Republicans or good Democrats or because we’re nice, civic-minded people…it’s because we are called to come together and to work for the kingdom of God.
There is also a reason that the church has endured 2,000 years of persecution, famine, plague, war, division, and re-formation, and it isn’t just dumb luck. It is because the Spirit embraces and empowers, lures and encourages, beckons and sends the church to reinvent itself in every generation. Our time is no different. Let’s cross the threshold together as we rebirth the church.
© 2021 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact hal at plymouthucc.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.