The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph
Exodus 20: 1-4, 7-9, 12-20
October 8, 2017 at
Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ
Fort Collins, CO.
Good morning Plymouth! Thank you this morning to our many volunteers who make worship possible: Sound, Deacons, Choir/Music, and our wonderful liturgists. While the minister preaches, these volunteers have the job of invoking the Holy Spirit through their work.
Now, would you pray with me? O God, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be good and pleasing to you, our guide, our teacher, and the ultimate mouse-catcher! Amen.
Plymouth, I have something to confess to you as my employer this morning. Since I started working for this church as one of your ministers (three years ago November 1st), I have been hearing voices. Now, I know that sounds really bad coming from your minister. So, don’t get the wrong idea. I am not hearing God (at least not audibly), angels, or ghosts—this is the month leading into Halloween so one must be very careful about invoking such things. No, no…I am hearing voices because the way the minister office area over here is insulated, and the way the hallways are shaped and surfaced. Because of the architecture of this church, I can hear voices emanating from the conference room if the door is open, as far away as the front door and even the back of the sanctuary from sitting at my desk answering emails (which as Ron and Jane Anne will tell you is a significant part of working here—you all LOVE emails). Yes, Plymouth, if you are in this building, it is likely that your ministers can and do hear you. We hear all voices emanating from the walls and corridors.
So I hear lots of voices from my office, and usually I politely ignore them unless addressed to me. A week ago, however, though I heard a voice down the hallway asking a rather odd question: Do you often have mice here at Plymouth? Never having seen a mouse at Plymouth, although the previous associate minister Sharon Benton did warn me about their existence, I ran out of my office to find both the mouse in question and my interim boss, The Rev. Ron Patterson, in a staring contest in a corner down the hallway. The mouse looked at Ron. Ron looked at the mouse. I looked at the mouse. Ron and the mouse looked back at me. What should we do? I have never had to catch a mouse before.
Now mind you, this was a very small and incredibly adorable and reasonably terrified little baby mouse. It was about the size of your thumb from its head to end of its tale. Cowering in the corner, not running fast, Ron suggested it was probably dehydrated and lost.
Friends, let me say the other time I have seen that look of fear and confusion on someone’s face is almost every Sunday when a new visitor arrives and doesn’t know anyone. So from now on when I do trainings about how to welcome people to church— just remember how scary a new church can be for human and mouse visitors alike.
By the time I had finished zoning out and turning that last metaphor about first time visitors over in my head, Ron had created an actual plan. “Get a cup and a piece of paper,” Ron said, so I went running for a small clear glass cup and a piece of sturdy paper. I also grabbed a small manila folder for me to use as a temporary wall to assist the effort from the corralling side of things.
Then we were off! As Barb and Daisy barricaded themselves in the front office, Ron chased the mouse with the cup as it took off down the hallway. I herded the mouse with the folder into another corner where Ron promptly dropped a glass over the mouse. [Produce an actual glass cup like the one we used and drop it down on the pulpit.] We had caught it! He then gently slid a piece of paper under the mouse to create a floor.
Voila--we now had a mouse airplane! Imagine that mouse’s surprise as Ron lifted the mouse in the cup off the ground went swiftly out the door into the rain and safely deposited it by the far fence across the parking lot. The mouse had reached freedom and a state of liberation! And that, my friends, is how you catch a real, live, church mouse with a lot of care and teamwork.
Today’s lectionary reading from Exodus, Chapter 20 is one of the passages in the Bible (and there are several) that deal with the Ten Commandments or what academics call the Decalogue. No, there isn’t a commandment telling us step-by-step how to catch a mouse (I wish there were), but often we feel like a lost mouse when we encounter these ancient texts and rules and try to navigate the complex passages of Scripture and our lives in community. The Ten Commandments are, in their basic form, the outline of community covenant that ideally would help us to navigate lives in which we often feel like lost mice. A lot of life is, after all, feeling like a lost mouse in God’s universe.
This part of Exodus is a very ancient part of the Hebrew Bible. It is also a complex part (the scholarship surrounding Exodus from historians and accredited Biblical scholars is often rejected by our Evangelical sisters and brothers) because at closer look we can see the complexities of the text. The story of Moses bringing them down off of the mountains is important but so is the historical-critical scholarship. In the UCC, we take both the history and the narrative seriously.
Exodus, and this version of the 10 Commandments in particular, incorporates and directly quotes very VERY ancient portions of a pre-Biblical fragments called the Code of Hammurapi from the Ancient Near Eastern Babylonian context that predates the rest of Exodus by several hundred to a thousand years and also a 1,000 years after the original version it incorporated later edits and revisions from the later Priestly period. The Ten Commandments, contrary to an anachronistic literal interpretation of the story, represent around 2,000 years of human history, covenant, legal code, and the necessary changes there within. [The Bible is most powerful when understood as communities wrestling with God.]
In non-academic talk, Exodus is an ancient narrative that draws upon much earlier legal codes (pre-dating the Bible) and like all relevant and good law was revised and edited much later to meet the needs of the Priestly era communities. This shows that the Ten Commandments were like all good and practical laws and good understanding of cultural covenants meant to be contextual, updated, and relevant for the society they governed.
The Ten Commandments were written based on older laws and the version we know today, scholarship shows comes from a redacted version from a later period. So what happened to this ancient understanding of law and Bible as something that needs to be reinterpreted anew in the contexts it meets? Where did that go? When did we get stuck in that mousetrap of interpretive death? When did we, as a country, then start using bad interpretation of Biblical law (seeing it as frozen in time) to interpret our Constitutional Law? Which is the cat and which is the mouse here in this interpretive choice?
Vs. 4, “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the sea…” For the word of God in Scripture, for the word of God among us… for the word of God within us… friends… what have we done with the Ten Commandments in modern America?
Politicians have turned them into an impractical, meaningless idol—a totem replacement for God’s good and dynamic presence. “If only we keep the old sculpture of the Ten Commandments in courtrooms,” says many rightwing politicians, “then we will surly have favor with God.” Even better, as long as we defend stone monuments to God, we don’t have to think about love of neighbor or what the monuments actually say or funding programs that support God’s people! Ironically, this is the definition of an idol (written on the very stone monuments they are defending to avoid)… a static representation of the will of God that ignores the realities of the needs and issues of the time. It denies a living God whose presence we experience and know and replaces God with stone scriptures of laws that were always meant to be reinterpreted for every new generation since they were taken from the Babylonians for the early drafts of the Talmud and revised by the Priestly governors. As a country, we have done the same thing, applied the same flawed written in stone logic with the Second Amendment—BUT we need to understand it for a new time and new issues and new technologies that were not here at the writing. The weapons and violence we saw this week means that we need to re-understand again the meaning of both Biblical and Constitutional law.
This modern, anachronistic worship of the Ten Commandment—changing the commandments from living/ dynamic/ covenant relationship into a sculpture to be fought over is idolatrous. It is “Conservative” Blasphemy. Currying favor with political base, stoking hatred against minorities, ignoring starvation and housing issues, missing the point of God’s love but…BUT coming to the defense of a statue with old laws written on it instead of the defense of those in need, the poor, the abused, the LGBTQ minorities around the world, the desperate… is blasphemy and misses the point of the Ten Commandments.
The Ten Commandments were created from a process of meeting the covenant needs of the communities that wrote and reexamined them and made them a useful covenant in society.
I believe the mouse’s journey represents the different ways that we get stuck in our faith journeys and our relationship to church, to Scripture, and to law in general. Here are the three stages of catching a mouse as shorthand for how we move from fear and entrapment to freedom and Grace through covenants both with God and society:
Fear, Entrapment, Freedom—the different ways to relate to life, community, covenant, and the difficult parts of Scripture and relationships are all choices we make as people and society. We can run away from community, we can become too comfortable in clearly defined houses and rules, or we can join the world and learn to be free. The arc of the Biblical Narrative and the Life of Christ shows the way towards liberation, but first we have to let go of stone carvings of ancient laws and learn how to love freedom once again.
And that, my friends, is how you catch… and release... a mouse. Amen.
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph ("just Jake"), Associate Minister, came to Plymouth in 2014 having served in the national setting of the UCC on the board of Justice & Witness Ministries, the Coalition for LGBT Concerns, and the Chairperson of the Council for Youth and Young Adult Ministries (CYYAM). Jake has a passion for ecumenical work and has worked in a wide variety of churches and traditions. Read more about him on our staff page.
October 1, 2017
Rev. Ron Patterson
This morning, as you heard, we begin our annual Stewardship campaign. This is when we are asked to support our congregation with our dollars and our dedication. I hope you know that Jesus spent more time talking about money and how we use it than any other topic. I need to confess right up front that I used to begin stewardship sermons with an apology, not wanting to offend anyone by talking about money, because in my family and in my mind that was a forbidden topic, private, secret, and off limits.
But Jesus rescued me with his honesty and some good congregations nurtured me with their generosity and dedication and helped me forget my fear. And while I will be speaking again on this topic in a couple of weeks with more specifics, I want to use my sermon time today to tell you a story.
My beloved always says that 'my little kid on the farm' stories are the best ones I tell, because unlike the other stories that help me make sense of life as a person of faith, the 'little kid on the farm' stories come from the time that molded how I look at the world as a child of God.
The farm is gone, the people who touched my life then are gone, but the memories animate my day to day.
When I was seven, I was sent to my great-grandparents dairy farm in rural Ohio to stay and for the next ten years, I spent every summer and almost every school vacation on that farm working and experiencing the rhythms of nature and the life cycle of a working farm with hogs and sheep and chickens and beef cattle and a raft of dairy cows and hay and corn and wheat and oats and gardens and canning and fields and woods and springs of cool clear water and endless chores and just plain hard work. That experience, more than school or college or seminary molded that place on the inside of my heart that I would describe as my soul.
Today, I want to tell you the story of the miraculous peach tree. But to share this story, I need to give you a little farming background. When we made hay on the farm, the hay would be cut and then when it was dry, it would be raked together into windrows so that the hay bailer could pick it up and pack it into bails. This process normally took about three days and as a little kid, since I couldn't drive the tractor yet, I didn't have much to do with it, other than helping collect and stack the bails and bring them into the barn. But sometimes, just when the hay was about dry, there would come a sudden thunder storm and you just can't bail wet hay--and then would come a chore which I hated more than any other.
It involved picking up a three tine hayfork and fluffing up the windrows of hay just enough to permit the breeze to blow in under the hay to dry it so that by afternoon it could be bailed. And I hated that job, because it was hot and it was dusty and it was in the sticky humid sun of an Ohio summer. And once in a while a snake or rabbit or a mouse would be hiding under the hay and as you walked along fluffing the hay they would jump out and for a little kid that was terrifying. And the job was endless in a way that things are often endless for a child.
One summer on a miserable hot day I was alone doing this job way out around the hill from the barn, fluffing the windrow with my hayfork when I came to the end of the field. I was so hot and feeling totally sorry for myself and suddenly I looked up and there was a tiny tree growing in the fencerow that divided our farm from the neighbor’s woods. And as I looked, I noticed that something was growing on the tree.
The tree was loaded with gigantic peaches--the size of small grapefruit, and they were ripe and they were wonderful and I ate a couple and each time I finished fluffing a windrow I stopped and ate another peach and I forgot about the heat and the snakes and the sun. That little tree became my best friend that afternoon and to this day they were the best peaches I have ever tasted.
The next summer, when it came time to work that field again, I looked for that peach tree—and the first time that summer I managed to make it to the end of that field, I was cutting thistles along the edge of the field where corn was now growing. I looked and looked for the peach tree and finally found the same place and there it was—only that year, it was just a nearly dead stump of a thing—uncared for and unplanned, it had pretty much died over the winter. There were no more peaches. It was gone.
And I have thought about that peach tree many times since. Every time I've tasted a good peach and you have great peaches here in Ft. Collins, I've wondered about that peach tree. Where did it come from? How did it get there? Chances are one of my relatives—some cousin or great uncle, had passed that way eating a peach and tossed the peach pit into the fence row. Chances are, by some miracle that peach pit grew—and by another miracle, uncared for and unbidden—that little peach tree had managed to bloom and prosper for a few years, half a mile from no where in the back of the beyond.
And while those peaches were the sweetest ones in the world—something was missing--something important was missing. There was no planning and there was no ongoing care or giving to nurture that little tree and so when the harsh wind blew across those Ohio hills that next winter, the little tree stunted eventually died.
So often in the life of the churches I have known over the years, I have seen the same thing happen to great ideas and even great congregations that did not take to heart the call of Jesus to give and to care. Too often there was this assumption that someone else would do it, or that an individual’s giving did not make a difference. Growth and leaders and mission and our work in this community depend on our enthusiasm and our financial support.
And so I am a believer. I believe in planting trees I will never live to enjoy. I believe in doing what I can to make the dream others gave me come true in a future that will not include my presence. I believe in giving that supports people as they do the love of Jesus in this community and around the world. I believe in giving to maintain this building so that my grandchildren will find the same love I experienced in my home church as a child. I believe in a music and youth program that exists to proclaim God’s love with verve and excellence. I believe in giving to support the cause of peace and justice. I believe that the more we give, the deeper our experience of God’s presence will be.
I wandered in here six weeks ago and what I discovered was a living outpost of the Jesus movement named Plymouth: people working together and loving, thinking and living, people daring and dreaming. The gifts we share and the commitment we make will strengthen this congregation and this community. The lives we live and our giving makes that possible today and for the sake of the future. I thank God for your witness and for the ministry we share. 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.
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