Rev. Dr. Ron Patterson
Plymouth Congregational Church
Fort Collins, CO
Charnley and I are happy to be back with you again! This congregation and this community have become our second home. Hal, Jane Anne and Mark along with your leaders have extended a wonderful welcome in the last few days. I would be less than honest though if I did not confess, that while I have come to love this congregation and its ministry to the Fort Collins community, my deeper motivation for accepting this three-month bridge assignment has lots to do with our two grandchildren, Heath and Quinn, and the opportunity to spend some extra time with them. Besides, accepting this job enabled me to score one of those coveted Plymouth parking stickers for the back of our car.
We left home in Tacoma last Friday the 9th and arrived here last Sunday. I spent Monday learning about your computer system and something called Slack, which is a fascinating name for a system that enables continuous communication between your staff and maybe continuous work? As a recovering workaholic struggling with retirement, Slack is such an enticing temptation! Just think of the possibilities---something that sounds like rest—slacking off, gifting me with the possibility of continuous engagement!
I had been in the office about an hour, being tutored by your amazing Communications Coordinator, Anna Broskie, when Hal and Jane Anne invited me out to lunch. Of course, I accepted and learned over lunch that they wanted me to preach today; and since it was my first day on the job, I really couldn’t refuse.
After lunch, I went back to my study and read the lectionary passages for this Sunday and one of them was the Shepherd Psalm. Chances are about 80% of you could recite these words from memory and even people who have never cracked open a Bible find them familiar. They are words of comfort and hope. They are words of promise and what they promise is the eternal presence of the loving God watching with us on the journey of life. One of the things this life journey has taught me is that we don’t get to choose the valleys through which we may have to journey—that it’s “valley now or valley later,” valley of the shadow of death or despair or depression or fear, or tragedy, but that the promise of the presence of the shepherd does not fail.
This morning I want to share a few thoughts with you that came to me as we were driving through rural Oregon, Idaho, Utah, and Wyoming. Thoughts I found myself pondering as I saw signs of political discontent and anger about last year’s election as we traveled from one blue island in Washington to another in Colorado through a sea of hot red. I want to think with you about tolerance and take as my text the shepherd Psalm.
As I looked at the Psalm this time, I noticed something that I had not noticed before. I knew that it is full of spiritual truth. I knew that it is a compact comforter ready to read or remember when life’s bumps and bruises challenge or threaten to overwhelm. I’ve read it beside hospital beds, at gravesides and remembered its words when I couldn’t seem to remember anything else. I’ve never met a person who failed to understand its power, but this time I noticed something more.
Woven into the fabric of this little poem, are gentleness and kindness and acceptance. Lovingly, these simple words about the Good Shepherd invite us to a different way of living with the people around us. They invite us to travel the way of tolerance in what often these days seems to be a journey surrounded by growing intolerance.
What I hear in these words is something that seems to be sadly lacking in the screaming voices standing on street corners or packing guns in public places or writing political commentary or expressing religious ideas here and around the world. You don’t have to go very far to meet people who figure that you and I are going to hell because we welcome everybody. You don’t have to travel too far to meet others who reckon that because we speak up for reproductive freedom or say that black lives matter we are not really Christians or that because we try to take the Bible seriously and not literally, we are not true followers of the way of Jesus.
It fills me with fear that some people believe that there is only one way to understand what God wants us to understand about life and love and who to love and the future. And worst of all, is dressing hate up as a cross between patriotism and ignorance and calling it Christianity and then deluding people by suggesting that one set of political ideas is the only set which bears the stamp of divine approval and that any preacher or any politician can tell you exactly what that is.
What I see when I read the shepherd Psalm is nothing like any of that, but what I hear when I listen to so many people and even sometimes when I listen to myself when I am overtaken by fear or frustration at others’ ideas or actions… is something a whole lot different.
What I see and what I hear is regrettably the idea that if I am right you must be wrong and that if you are correct, then I must be wrong and that the rightness or the wrongness of my perception or your perception throws up a wall between us that cannot be breached and that if it is, then you are a winner and I am loser or the other way round.
Some time ago, I ran across an article that talked about silo thinking. Silo thinking. That right now in this nation and in the world, many people only listen to the people with whom they agree—that like those hard concrete silos where farmers store things—too many of us are living in intellectual, spiritual and political isolation, separated from one another. I spent time on a farm as a child and we had a silo—you know what that is—it’s one of those beautiful big round, tall structures that dot the rural landscape. Each summer, we filled the silo with either chopped hay or chopped corn and then it fermented and the cows loved it—I think it was sort of like herd keg party—but the silo was dangerous, and sometimes farmers died—because sometimes those hard concrete walls held not only the crops, but dangerous gas that could kill.
Well, that is the danger of silo thinking, because it clouds the mind and the heart with the deadly temptation to deny the image of God in another person or to see another one of God’s children as an enemy to be vilified and defeated.
To get ahead of myself for a second, let me just say that the image of God setting a table in the presence of our enemies turns that idea upside down, and that’s about tolerance and acceptance and having an open heart and an open mind. Hold that thought, please for a moment.
A few years ago, I attempted to rewrite the Shepherd Psalm to fit some of the intolerance and silo thinking I heard floating around in my own head and heart and in the community where I was and around this nation and around the world. And please forgive me, I am not a poet and I am not a Psalmist, but I am someone who is troubled by the creeping intolerance that seems to be festering in all sorts of places. Particularly in places where according to the love of Jesus it does not belong.
Listen now to words which stuff the shepherd Psalm into a silo of intolerance:
God is the ruler who gives me what I want.
I own the pasture because I obey God’s rules.
I drown out the water’s gentle sound with the self-righteous roar of my ideas.
God is on my side, I have the exact words to prove it.
You better watch out since you’re in the dark and I’m not.
So I will beat you on the head with the rod of my belief.
And if you come to the table at all, it will be on my terms.
But if you don’t agree with me, you’re the enemy.
You don’t belong.
My cup is full because I earned it,
and God’s with me right where I am,
but surely not where you are.
Now that’s somewhat silly and somewhat overstated and those words are negative and those words are not hopeful and those are not the words I want you to leave here this morning remembering.
I want you to remember instead that when you and I say that God is our shepherd that does not mean that God loves any of God’s other children one little bit less. I want you to leave here with the idea that there is no fence around the green pasture and that the still water of a heart at peace with itself and God’s unconditional love, flows for every single person who seeks it. If you or I limit the love of God, then we have denied the essential nature of God as the ground of unlimited possibility. The God who spoke through Jesus, will not be enclosed in any silo of the mind or political reality human beings can design to fool themselves into feeling secure in its bounds.
And when a politician or a religious leader plays with the fear we have about the future or about our security, by building silos that separate us from God’s other children, then they have denied the essential truth the Good Shepherd calls us to live. A church or a nation built on a foundation of fear and intolerance might succeed for a time, but the arc of history and eternal truth always tends toward love.
I want us to live our lives understanding that when the Psalmist talks about restoring our souls, that soul restoration is a lifelong process and that judging where any other child of God is in that process, just delays our own journey.
I want us all to remember that just because we think we’re right about something others do not by definition, by politics or by theology have to be wrong. I want us to remember that even a stopped clock is correct twice-a-day. I want us to hold to the center of our hearts the memory that even if we are wrong or others are wrong, we are still called to love ourselves and love them too. I want us to remember that life is a journey and that God is still speaking and acting on that journey and calling us to work for justice.
I want us to know with every once of our being that we are loved by God but that God’s love for us does not mean others who worship in different languages or in ways that seem odd to us are worshiping a different God.
If it’s just my dark valley that is covered and if the staff and the rod of God’s love just heal the problems of people who look like me or act like me or think like me—then I must have the Holy One mixed up in my mind with a cheap little god who is a whole lot smaller than the whole universe and who is created in my image rather than the other way round. That’s not the God revealed by the person who sang this Psalm the first time and that is not what Jesus was trying to say either.
The table at which we are invited to sit and be welcomed, is larger than my idea of just how big it is. The goodness is better and the mercy is fuller and there are more days there than I have to worry about, because the house of God’s love is infinitely large and extravagantly welcoming to all.
Now, that’s how I read the shepherd psalm and that’s why I know the Shepherd is good!
From July 12 to October 3, 2021, the Rev. Ron Patterson is with us again, having served as a sabbatical interim four years ago, and then serving as our interim conference minister during The Rev. Sue Artt’s sabbatical. Ron retired as Senior Minister of Naples United Church of Christ in Florida. Ron and his wife have family here in Fort Collins: their daughter is a member of Plymouth, and their grandchildren are active in Sunday school. Pronouns: he/him.