“The Roots of Righteousness”
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning, Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
26 November 2023
This section of scripture is a favorite among us UCC types and for other mainline Protestants who practice an engaged form of spirituality. And even among UCC congregations, I think that this congregation has a unique charism or gift in putting our faith into action.
I could list any number of ways we together have gone about the business of feeding, clothing, sheltering people. The Homelessness Prevention Initiative, now part of Neighbor-to-Neighbor, had its beginnings at Plymouth when Sister Mary Alice Murphy approached us 20 years ago with the idea. We’ve built interfaith bridges and publicly advocated for those Jesus called “the least of these, who are members of my family.” What is even more important in the long run is the ways we are trying to affect social change so that charity isn’t needed.
And there is a long, long way to go. In the meantime, we wind up doing both things: providing a hand up and also trying to change systems of oppression and injustice. Someone asked recently why we are sending money to the Our Church’s Wider Mission, which is the way we fund not only the conference and national setting of the United Church of Christ, but also where we fund international outreach and mission. From what I understood, the person asking the question suggested that we should be taking care of our own local community, rather than people whom we will never see, let alone meet.
As a people who worship an invisible God, I think we should understand that seeing with our eyes isn’t everything. Just because you don’t SEE it happening doesn’t mean that it ISN’T happening. Globalization and technology move us beyond borders and boundaries. If you don’t have kids and you earn $60,000 a year, your income is in the top one percent globally. So, even if you don’t see kids at a preschool in Ethiopia or a girls’ school in Angola or a primary school in East Jerusalem, they are there and being supported by this congregation. Access to education changes lives and it changes systems. “Blessed are they who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
Part of what I want to say this morning is “thank you.” The people who comprise this congregation have big hearts for mission and outreach. And much of what we do as a congregation doesn’t show up the ledger sheet of our budget, whether it is in the form of Share the Plate, the Mission Marketplace, preventing homelessness, or giving to a Special Offering of the UCC.
The reading from Matthew’s gospel has an eschatological tone, which is a highfalutin theological term that relates to final things at the end of the age. Whenever you hear Matthew talk about “the Son of Man,” it denotes a piece of Jesus’ character related to the final chapter of human existence, the end of the age.
If you believe in the Last Judgment or Hell, this passage might be motivating for you to act in a moral way in this life so that you will be rewarded in the next. Yet, I don’t see God or Jesus as a divine accountant, putting our deeds on one side of some “Eternal Ledger” or another, and allowing those who end life in the black to enter eternal life (they would be the sheep) and those in the red to be consigned to eternal torment (they would be the goats). If you interpret this piece of scripture more literally, that’s fine. As a pastor, I prefer not to use fear as a motivator to encourage leading a moral life.
Orthopraxis is the twin sister of orthodoxy. You know that orthodoxy means holding the right opinion. And we don’t insist on uniformity of belief as a test of faithfulness in this congregation. Orthopraxis means right practice, especially in terms of religious faith. Depending on your religious tradition, orthopraxis might mean lighting candles at dinner on Friday evening and observing the sabbath on Saturday. Or it might mean making a pilgrimage to Mecca and abstaining from pork and alcohol. Or it might mean giving the hungry something to eat or the thirsty something to drink or the naked something to wear or visiting the sick or imprisoned or welcoming the stranger. I think we do have a fairly high bar of orthopraxis in our congregation around social justice issues. My only concern with that is that we don’t fall into the trap of thinking that our good works are all there is to leading a faithful life. We can get rather proud of taking action, and we sometimes set up an impossible standard of trying to save everyone everywhere.
So, for the sake of argument, let’s say that you AREN’T going to be sent to hell in a handbasket because you have not been charitable in your actions. WHY are you engaging in those behaviors? If you don’t fear eternal punishment, why bother to meet the needs of your neighbor around the world or on your doorstep? Stop for a minute. Ask yourself WHY you are doing things like feeding, welcoming, visiting? Is it just because we are “good people” and that’s how “good people” behave? Is it because our politics drive us in the direction of ensuring the needs of the “least of these?”
WHY are you doing something that is costly to you personally?
Part of the reason I’m posing this question is because I have learned so much from people in this congregation about what it means to live a faithful life. This is a really small example, but a long time ago, maybe 18 years ago, I heard one of our members say that they parked further away from the door of the supermarket not so they would get in a few more steps to reach their 10,000-step goal, but because someone else might need a space closer to the door. WHY do people do such things that are inherently at odds with their self-interest? That’s countercultural.
Here’s another example. A couple in our congregation retired and joined the Peace Corps, which is a cool thing in and of itself, and I was surprised that every year they were abroad, they still pledged their financial support of this congregation, even though they weren’t physical present to benefit from their membership. WHY did they do that? WHY were they acting in such a way that it diminished their financial self-interest? That’s countercultural.
Here’s a third example. Last year, a young Palestinian man turned up on our doorstep needing help…with finding a home, with graduate enrollment at CSU, with his visa status, and more. The very first thing that happened when he walked into our doors on a Sunday morning is that Brooklyn and Mike McBride made him a nice, hot caffe latte, sat him down, and sought out Jane Anne to help. He had already been to the Islamic Center and four other Christian churches seeking help but was turned away. This being Plymouth, we found someone who has worked with international students at CSU, another who knew the social services offered in our community, and later a physician who provided immediate care and helped him navigate the US healthcare system. And they built bonds of friendship and relationship that are still intact. Later his wife and son joined him from Jordan, and as you heard last Sunday, Darwish and Aseel have a new daughter named Ayla.
WHY are these Plymouth people doing these things? I also want to ask you to pose this question for yourself. I can’t answer that for you…that’s your job, and I hope you will grapple with it!
I can answer it for myself. Part of my sense of faith and my orthopraxis is to try and follow the way of Jesus as best I can, even when I fail at it. To try and let the Holy Spirit guide me and have her way with me. To trust in the guidance of Jesus and to know that on a deeply physical and spiritual level that his way is the path toward fullness of life not just for me, but for others, too.
I try not to do this – to engage orthopraxis – in a legalistic way. And I try not to judge others who may have a different way of expressing their faith than I do. My best guess in life is that if I know what was motivating Jesus – his WHY – I can use that to help motivate me, too.
Marcus Borg claimed that Jesus overturned the systematized and ritualized purity practice of ancient Israel (which was a form of orthopraxis) and replaced it with a new value: compassion. Compassion is a form of deeply shared feeling and sympathy. It can be self-sacrificial. Compassion sometimes comes at the expense of our own narrow visions of purity, orthodoxy, and orthopraxis.
Following Jesus is not always easy or comfortable, but it is the thing that continues to give my life meaning and purpose. I sense that the God that lures us toward wholeness and compassion also draws us toward unity and lovingkindness. WHY follow that path? Because the other trails don’t seem to lead toward God’s realm.
What is your WHY? I see so many things you do; why are you compelled to act with compassion? WHY might it have been important to your parents or someone you admired as a young person? In considering why you act the way you do, may you be drawn even closer to the living God whom we worship, and in whose realm we live and work.