October 29, 2017
Rev. Dr. Ron Patterson
Let me begin with a true story. Several years ago I arrived late to the annual Christmas Bazaar at my church in Naples, Florida. Most years, as the Senior Minister, I was there at the opening of the Bazaar and would spend the entire day wandering the various rooms welcoming our guests and encouraging our volunteers. In that congregation the Christmas Bazaar was a big deal because the proceeds benefited the homeless and the hungry and our neighbors. Their goal was to raise over $30,000 and with creative crafts, baked goods, art, food and a lot more, they usually managed that much or more.
Well that year, I arrived about an hour before closing time because of an out of town meeting. I managed to greet and thank most of the volunteers before ending up in the hall where a few of the men in the congregation set up their Trash and Treasure booth. When I walked in, the men who had spent the day on their feet were sitting in the corner of a room with mostly empty tables of the picked over remnants of mainly trash with few noticeable treasures on offer, but I browsed anyway. On one table I noticed a few pair of old binoculars, one clearly broken and another in a worn leather case. I opened the case and took out a small but surprisingly heavy pair of binoculars. I looked at the label and noted that they were Leitz binoculars made in Germany. I called back to the men and wondered if they minded if I took the binoculars outside for a look. They didn’t care so I did, and as I focused them on a palm tree across the parking lot, I squealed with delight. I took them back inside and asked how much they were. Without leaving his seat, the man in charge said: “Five bucks,” and went back to his conversation.
I took my new birding glasses home that night and discovered that the same binoculars list on EBay for over a thousand dollars and are described as ‘probably the finest small binoculars ever made.” I treasure them and use them all the time. These are my $5 miracle binoculars. (Hold them up)
Now, I tell that story today, because I think it’s a parable about my personal faith and our faith tradition. Today we commemorate the 500th anniversary of the beginning of one part of the Protestant Reformation. We remember that in Wittenberg, Germany, in 1517, an obscure monk nailed 95 debating points to a church door. It was an invitation to a theological conversation from the learned to the learned. It was written in Latin. Most of the 95 thesis would mystify and confuse us today because they mainly concern who forgives whom for what, when, and how. But Luther opened a door and surprised himself by starting a revolution. When translated and multiplied by the new at the time printing press, his ideas mushroomed and upset the careful religious consensus that had dominated Western Europe for 500 years. His words helped people see a new relationship with God.
Like my wonderful German binoculars discovered in the trash, binoculars that help me see the wonder around, Luther found treasure in what was old and tired in the medieval world view and began a Reformation of faith and practice that has defined and shaped everything that has happened to Christianity in the last five hundred years. Within his lifetime, other Reformers like Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin and dozens more, redefined the Christian faith in ways that still touch our lives today. Let me add a footnote here: The United Church of Christ is I believe, the single Protestant denomination that carries in its DNA all of the major strands of the Protestant Reformation, we are a bit Lutheran, we are a bit Calvinist, we are a little Zwinglian as well. We carry a strain of the English Reformation in our history and we are also a little bit Anabaptist in our Christian Church heritage. I tell you that as an invitation to learn more of this interesting history in your own reading, but this is a sermon and not a lecture, so I have some other ideas to share.
Back to the binoculars! They are old, they were rescued from the trash, but they are only worth what they permit me to see and understand about my world and my life journey now and in the future. So here goes.
One of the ideas born in the Protestant reformation, an idea that our UCC tradition holds close and cherishes, is the idea that part of being a reformed Christian is to be continually reforming. That’s where all that UCC talk about “God is still speaking” and “there is yet more light and truth to break forth from God’s holy word’ comes from. (Pilgrim Pastor, John Robinson) We cherish the Bible and lots of traditional ideas, but for us, the Bible is a guide and not a dictator and tradition is a touch point, not a tether.
A few years ago, a writer named Phyllis Tickle suggested the notion that every five hundred years or so, Christians need to hold a great garage sale and dump their worn out theological trash and embrace new ways of thinking about the treasure God gives in an attempt to see and experience what new things the Holy Spirit is doing in the world.
And I love that idea because I know that God is a moving target calling us into the future. And while some people questioned Tickle’s theory of how history operates, I want to take her basic idea and offer a few suggestions for you to consider.
What should we keep and what should we dump? What religious ideas should we cherish and what should we abandon? Luther and the other reformers, especially Calvin talked about the sovereignty of God. I think that’s a keeper because it prevents the rest of us from confusing our thoughts and our opinions and time bound cultural notions that often appear as racism, sexism, classism, and a dozen other isms with God and the image of God we bear.
When a church tells people who to love or limits love with a litmus test that separates me from the rest of humanity by dogma or doctrine that mimics the prejudices of a particular leader; that’s surrendering the sovereignty of God to some inferior reality: preacher, priest or the bigot down the street. That is thinking that belongs on history’s trash heap!
The reformers stressed the importance of faith over works. Luther’s life was transformed by the idea that you could not work your way into heaven, but that the promise of abundant life was a free gift of God’s love in Jesus Christ. That’s an idea worth living for because there is plenty of conditional love on offer in the religious world and when somebody talks about love with strings attached, that’s not love and that’s not what Jesus had to say. Unless grace is amazing, it’s not grace.
Look at what Jesus said and look at how he lived and get rid of the barnacles the church has encrusted itself with over the last twenty centuries to protect its authority, often male authority. Live like Jesus, love like Jesus and jettison the rest. Distill the essence of tradition into the essential oil of a lived faith. That essence is covered quite beautifully in our scripture lesson for today—love God, love your neighbor and respect yourself enough to keep learning and growing. Don’t trust me, trust a community praying and talking and caring for one another. Luther called it the ‘priesthood of all believers’ and that’s an idea worth living.
Five hundred years ago Protestants and Roman Catholics forced uniformity and conformity of thought in the territories they controlled. And in the process fought long wars and caused amazing suffering. Freedom of conscience was stifled by the fear of change. Fling out the fear and bring on the freedom.
I don’t think it matters how you worship or what type of music that you happen to like. I’m a fan of simple but there’s nothing wrong with worship that isn’t simple, if it renews and nurtures our lives toward engagement on behalf of Jesus in a world that is hurting. Style is time bound, substance is timeless. Cherish the substance that empowers active love.
In my mind there is no such thing as an individual Christian. People who talk about having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ are too often the same people who look the other way when it comes to loving others without condition. The whole notion of getting saved as some sort of test of Christian credibility is an American invention. Being born again may be a way to get elected in this country, but being born again daily with a humility that trusts God in all things and struggles to be a bit more loving day by day is an idea worth keeping.
About a thousand years ago, St. Anselm of Canterbury, an Italian monk who later became the Archbishop of Canterbury put forth the doctrine of substitutionary atonement. This doctrine says in essence, that you and I crucified Christ by our willful sinfulness and that to satisfy an angry God for our sins, an innocent Jesus had to die as a substitute for the punishment we deserved.
And on that one doctrine, I think, rests all the gloom and doom and guilt that have enveloped most of the western Christian tradition for the past 1,000 years. It is this doctrine, sometimes wrapped in contemporary music or marketed in prosperity gospel pulpits, that lurks just below the surface in conservative churches all over.
You can hide it with seeker friendly music or upbeat preaching but it is still about guilt and shame and getting right with Jesus or God will get you! Now, you can force this idea out of the New Testament if you fish for it and many of us, first found one form of Jesus through guilt based preaching that scared us into a conversion experience—that happened to me, but I have changed my mind.
I have come to believe that fear killed Jesus, that hate killed Jesus, that small- mindedness and greed and political power trying to hold on to privilege, killed Jesus. An empire killed Jesus and empires of political and religious power when they work together still try to kill Jesus today. Look at some of the so-called religious arguments that are made against health care or freedom of choice or human rights and look at how people of color and the poor and the oppressed are victimized.
But Jesus will not stay dead despite the effort of lots of Christians attempt to keep him dead and safe in the past like grandma’s old Bible sitting unread on the coffee table. Jesus is alive and there is this universal life force called love, as in “God is love”, that was in Jesus and is in you and me and in the essence of the universe beyond all that we can understand and know, that moves through us to bring change and hope and the promise of abundant life.
And when we sort that out and get thoughts like that going in our minds and souls, seeking in this faith family the presence of the God who’s still speaking, we will discover that like it or not, we become part of what the Holy Spirit is up to for the next 500 years.
Happy 500th Reformed and Reforming Anniversary! Amen.
The Rev. Ron Patterson came to Plymouth as our interim for the fall of 2017 during the Rev. Hal Chorpenning’s 2017 sabbatical. Ron has served many churches from Ohio to New York City and Naples UCC in Florida, where he was the Senior Minister for many years before retiring. Ron’s daughter-in-law and grandchildren attend Plymouth.
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
October 22, 2017
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
2 Corinthians 9:6-15
2 Corinthians 9:6-15
6 The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. 7 Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. 8 And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work.
9 As it is written, "God scatters abroad, God gives to the poor; God’s righteousness endures forever."
10 God who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. 11 You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us; 12 for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God. 13 Through the testing of this ministry you glorify God by your obedience to the confession of the gospel of Christ and by the generosity of your sharing with them and with all others, 14 while they long for you and pray for you because of the surpassing grace of God that God has given you. 15 Thanks be to God for God’s indescribable gift!
My dad once walked into my kitchen and said “This is just like your grandmother’s!” What he meant was the number of plants and bits of plants I have in my kitchen window. And its true. We have a greenhouse window above the kitchen sink and it is full. Of pots of herbs. A few flowers I nurture through the winter. The last of the tomatoes ripening. And yes at least a couple of odd-shaped bottles of plants sprouting roots in water. It is reminiscent of Grandmother Ferguson’s kitchen window sills in the old farmhouse in Oklahoma.
I loved Grandma Ferguson’s house. Not fancy at all, comfortable, old pictures on the walls, the smell of the earth and the smell of iron from the well water. Her Oklahoma red dirt garden out back was complete with terrapins, as she called them, box turtles. We would paint their shells with finger nail polish to identify them the next time we came. There were chickens, goats, cows, sometimes puppies...
I’m guessing I first heard the old hymn that gives us the sermon title this morning sitting in with her in the sanctuary of the First Baptist Church of Harrah, OK. I even remember the old sanctuary where my dad and all his siblings grew up wiggling in the pews beside her. “Bringing in the Sheaves” was written in 1874 by Knowles Shaw, who was inspired by Psalm 126:6,
"He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him. Sowing in the morning, sowing seeds of kindness, Sowing in the noontide and the dewy eve; Waiting for the harvest, and the time of reaping, We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves. Refrain: Bringing in the sheaves, bringing in the sheaves, We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves, Bringing in the sheaves, bringing in the sheaves, We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.
What have you harvested recently in your life? Let’s think literally first. Vegetables, flowers from a raised bed or container garden? How many have actually harvested wheat or hay or soybeans or corn or some other large crop?
Now let’s think figuratively... in metaphor. What have you harvested in your life? What are some seeds you have planted in relationships, family, school, career, a hobby, sport, a craft that have resulted in a satisfying, abundant harvest?.....for instance just over 25 years ago I decided to study storytelling, to start learning and telling stories...I took classes and went to workshops and spent hours in the library looking up old books of tales (this was before the internet made it easier to find all kinds of stories from different cultures and traditions)....I spent hours crafting a story, writing it down at the beginning,.... making storyboards of the scenes....rehearsing and rehearsing....I would get very nervous before telling. The harvest of all those hours of study and research is abundance. More than I ever imagined. I still work at my storytelling , I still tend it like we have to tend a garden day by day, week by week, year by year, .....but now I learn stories with an ease that surprises me. I have a style of telling that has developed over the years that surprises me. And telling stories is second nature to me. I feel fully who I am and a closeness to God I never imagined when I tell stories...that’s not why I set out to tell stories...its the harvest of all the years of tending the practice of storytelling. What about you?
What have you harvested in your life with the perseverance and love and the help of God that surprised you? The beauty of life is that we never have to stop planting seeds of change and growth and harvesting their results.
Growing a church can be like growing a garden, well maybe more like tending an entire farm! Each church is started in its earliest years with a handful of folks, the first seeds....and they begin to grow community and ministry as they worship together, study together, care for one another, laugh and cry together. They sow seeds of God’s love and justice, reaping the harvest through times of joy and sorrow.
The apostle Paul was tending the garden of the church in Corinth when he gave them the words of encouragement that you just heard our liturgist read. To paraphrase Paul, “You reap as you sow, abundantly or sparingly, God supplies the abundance that empowers your generosity and sharing...Out of God’s abundance of blessing our ministries, our community, in the name of Christ grows....Thanks be to God for God’s indescribable gift....of love in Christ Jesus and so much abundance that we must share!”
So what about the harvest of our lives together here at Plymouth? The harvest of our pledges, our tithes and offerings, that make up our yearly operating budget? The harvest of our work together to make God’s realm of justice and love visible?We give faithfully year after year and there are many things we see grow, but we may miss the abundant and amazing scope of the harvest. We have a harvest of ministries that is so abundant that people can glean from our fields. In Hebrew scriptures we hear of God’s mandate about gleaning to God’s people. They are to always leave enough in their fields at harvest time so that the poor, the widows and the orphans, those on the margins of society could come and glean from the fields.
They could harvest from the fields they had could not plant or tend because of their particular vulnerability, to feed for their themselves and their families.
People glean from the fields of Plymouth through our generous giving of financial resources. Our pledges support a growing operating budget. We give above and beyond that to disaster relief, to Neighbors in Need for UCC ministries around our country, to the Christmas Fund to enhance support for retired UCC ministers.
We have a beautiful building to share with the Fort Collins community. We have active vital staff that not only tend Plymouth’s garden but reach out to connect us with the wider church and to be leaders in social change. Our youth are involved each summer and throughout the school year in mission and service trips....this summer our abundance spilled over into the Red Bud Reservation of South Dakota....and there are several Front Range Youth Events planned so they can continue service closer to home. The Immigration Team is very visible right now and growing in its ministry. Think of our giving to Bennett School, through the Alternative Giving Fair, the Giving Tree at Christmas, Faith Family Hospitality.....these just name a few ways in which people glean from our generous and abundant field.
And they glean from our spiritual engagement in this community. We come to worship, we meet for study and spiritual growth, for fellowship and to care for one another, to volunteer, in very tangible ways. This spiritual and physical energy spills out into the wider community of Fort Collins and northern CO. as we take the spirit of God that we encounter together in worship to our places of work, our schools , our neighbors. The abundance of Plymouth’s fields of ministry overflow.
In the midst of abundance we know that ministries, like plants, need constant tending , watering, feeding, warmth and light to grow. They may be new growth or they may be in the midst of change. There are times when ministries need tending with extra care. Like the Japanese eggplant I still have growing on our patio. I bought it on sale late in the season. It’s almost dried out with too little water, its almost drowned with the rains we had. In fact I had to repot it once because the soil was too wet. I bring it in when it threatens to freeze outside...and after losing blossoms, almost dying...it now has blossoms and four little eggplants growing. There are times when ministries need pruning in order to grow -– like my bougainvillea vine... When it looks like its at death’s door, I trim it back and give it a little plan food and it grows more leaves....it blooms pink at Christmas and magenta all summer. Then drops its leaves and we start again. Ministries in churches are like that.
What needs tending at Plymouth? Our Christian Formation programs need consistent tending children and youth with new volunteers, teachers bring creative and imaginative faith. Our evening service needs consistent tending so it is not a ghettoized or isolated group within Plymouth but a vital, connected part of Plymouth’s wide abundant fields. Our Calling and Caring program of lay visitation needs care as it expands to serve a larger church. Our outreach to college students in our community, starting with our immediate neighbors at CSU and reaching out in time across town to Front Range needs a great deal of tending as a new ministry of our community. Developing lay leadership skills and volunteer recruitment and management needs very consistent tending. development and involvement from a wider segment of our members. Progressive evangelism....making ourselves visible for the sake of expanding and making visible the realm of God in northern Colorado needs meticulous care. Understanding what it means to offer extravagant welcome must be tended each time we open our doors....we will never finish tending our welcome. We will never finish tending our vital faith for God keeps giving abundantly so that we can share abundantly.
The old song continues.... Sowing in the sunshine, sowing in the shadows, Fearing neither clouds nor winter’s chilling breeze; By and by the harvest, and the labor ended, We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.
We know the labor never really ends....it just changes with the seasons, with new growth, with the extravagant giving of God. Thanks be to God for God’s indescribable gifts to us as today we bring in the sheaves of God’s abundance and grace. Amen!
© The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, 2017. May be reprinted with permission only.
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, Associate, Minister, is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. She is also the writer of sermon-stories.com, a lectionary-based story-commentary series. Learn more about Jane Ann here.
Sermon podcasts (no text)