Totenfest MeditationRead Now
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
I know that for some of us, this is the most difficult Sunday of the year, because it provides an occasion when our grief can come to the surface again. Some of us have lost spouses, moms, dads, grandparents, children, dear friends. And though it is a difficult day, it is one of those rites of the church that acknowledge what we might rather sweep under the rug and ignore: that we are grieving, that we ache, that there is a piece of us that has died, too.
And I stand with you this morning: I grieve, I ache, and a piece of me has died. And one of the reasons I love this place, this congregation, the church in all its failings and its glories is that we know how to come together and get real. We mark births with baptism. We mark marriages of opposite-sex and same-sex couples. We even have a rite in our UCC Book of Worship for the ending of a marriage! We know how to name things…to say “died” instead of “passed away” …to say “wife” or “partner” instead of “special friend”…we say “money,” instead of “benevolences.” I love this church because we know how to distinguished unvarnished truth from polite BS…because we aren’t afraid to be REAL and genuine with what we are experiencing and how it meshes and sometimes tangles with our faith.
I love this church because we are a people who tie together personal faith and social responsibility. Yes, we are here this morning as people who are grieving or as those who are here to support them, and we are also here acknowledging that there is a sickness in our American culture that resulted in the violent deaths of eleven faithful Jews worshipping God at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. And we lift their lives up to God with love and light.
Sometimes churches go astray when they become esoteric, with ritual and liturgy that say nothing to people or perhaps even to God. Sometimes churches reinforce the cultural norms of Empire and afflict the oppressed instead of providing them comfort. Sometimes churches are afraid to talk about controversial topics like sex, race, politics, and money. I am grateful that we try to avoid those pitfalls and that you are here today to be real…together.
I love this church because we are not letting go of a central theme of our faith, which is to confront fear and to know that God is with us. God knows that we are going to be challenged, and God reminds us again and again: “Do not fear, for I am with you.” I love this congregation because when you come here you cannot help but know that you are not alone.
In virtually every memorial service I lead, I include the New Creed from the United Church of Canada, whose refrain repeats like a heartbeat: “We are not alone…we are not alone.” And I say to you this day, welcome to this place, because we are not alone. Do not be fearful, because God is with us, and we stand together.
I read and hear so much about loneliness and the absence of community in postmodern society, even as we are supposedly more connected by technology. WebMD claims that “Loneliness is a growing health epidemic.” In fact, they say that loneliness rivals obesity and smoking as a health risk. The New York Times reports that loneliness affects longevity and causes imbalances in stress hormones like cortisol.
Part of the genius of church is that we still provide face-to-face relationships; we provide one of the only places where intergenerational community is the norm. Literally, for God’s sake, ministers still make house calls! This is not to say that we can all come to church more regularly and start smoking and eating more saturated fats…but most of us have known all along that we feel better when we connect with God and neighbors at Plymouth. And, yes, it is still possible to feel lonely here. So, if you are looking for a place to plug in at Plymouth, come and talk to one of your ministers…we’d love to help find a place where you feel at home here!
Another truth for this Totenfest is that we all want to leave a legacy, to leave the world in better shape for having been here. And God knows the world needs our help. Earlier this week, I received a large envelope from a law firm here in town, and as I went through the pages I learned that one of our members who died last year, Lynn Richards, had included in her will a bequest for Plymouth. And I’m telling you this with her wife, Stacy’s, permission. The gift of $48,000 will become part of Plymouth’s endowment; it is the largest bequest our church has ever received. And I am deeply grateful that Lynn’s legacy includes a way to affect the mission of this congregation in perpetuity. Her caring will continue beyond any of our lifetimes…it’s a warm and wonderful reminder of Lynn, and it was particularly poignant to receive that letter during this week when we observe All Saints Day and Totenfest.
I asked myself the question, “What legacy will I leave behind?” and I think it’s a good question for us all to ask. How do you want to be remembered by friends and family and community? What can you do today to affect the impact you will have on the world? How can you leave this planet a better place for having lived here?
Life really is short. We really don’t have much time to gladden the hearts of those who are on this journey with us. So, we must be swift to love and to make a difference. And we must celebrate those whose lives we remember this day.
Mary Oliver writes:
“To live in this world
You must be able to do three things:
To love what is mortal;
To hold it
Against your bones knowing
Your own life depends on it;
And, when the time comes to let it go,
To let it go.”
And for me, what makes the letting go possible is knowing that we are not alone, that God loves us, and has called us by name.
I invite you to come forward if you wish, along the window aisle, and to speak aloud the name of someone you have loved and lost this past year.
© 2018 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact email@example.com for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
 WebMD, May 8, 2018. https://www.webmd.com/balance/news/20180504/loneliness-rivals-obesity-smoking-as-health-risk
 “The Surprising Effects of Loneliness on Health,” NYT, December 11, 2017
 From “A Blackwater Woods” by Mary Oliver
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.
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