“A New Reformation?"
Rev. Ron Patterson
October 30, 2022
Plymouth Congregational, UCC
Fort Collins, CO
Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4; Manifesto: A Mad Farmer’s Liberation Front by Wendell Berry
Last Sunday in my sermon I remarked casually, I think, that when I meet Jesus, I doubt he will quiz me over the basic doctrines of Reformed Protestant Christianity. I was serious about that. I happen to believe that doctrine divides and that love unites, and that serving Jesus is not so much about what I believe, but about what I am willing to do to love my neighbor. And that if my beliefs don’t lead me out that door and into a hurting world following Jesus the servant, then those beliefs don’t amount to much.
Well, today, many congregations like this one remember the Protestant Reformation, which began roughly five hundred years ago. That Reformation shattered the illusion of a unified Church, a process which has continued steadily ever since. Jesus said that he would be present wherever two or three of his followers gathered. That is true, I believe, but the problem over the years seems to have been that whenever two or three of his followers have gathered, the two disagree with one and those two go off and start their own church, a church that reflects what they think and what they believe, somehow imagining that they can get inside the mind of God.
Right now, there are hundreds of different Christian denominations in the US, thousands around the world, many of whom believe that they are right about all things Jesus and that the rest of us have it totally wrong. Let me remind you of something: the United Church of Christ, our denominational family, was formed with the idea of reuniting some of that brokenness. We have by and large failed in that call, but we have tried. We do our international mission work with the Disciples of Christ denomination. Our missionaries don’t try to convert people, they serve the needs of the people where they serve and work only when they have an invitation to serve from a local group. We share ministers with Lutherans and Presbyterians and a few others, and recently we have entered a partnership with the United Church of Canada, and we are in serious conversations with the Unitarian Universalist denomination. Our motto, “that they may all be one” is still part of our story.
Many years ago, a member of my congregation came to me and asked whether they were Protestant or Catholic? At first glance that’s a rather simple question to answer, but then one of the things that lies at the very core of our tradition is that simple answers are not always simple.
We are Protestants but we are also Catholic. We are Protestants because we are part of a group that has roots in the Protestant Reformation. We are Protestants not because we are protestors, but because we testify to some religious ideas that shape our lives. We are people who attempt to live the Jesus truth that we are called to love God, love ourselves and love our neighbors. And we are Catholic, a word that means "universal," because we share those big ideas with Christians of almost every tradition including our Roman Catholic siblings.
Permit me to dance a bit around this topic. One of the things I love most about this tradition is that we are always in a walk and conversation with a God who refuses to be boxed in by human simple mindedness. We believe in continual Reformation. We believe that the story continues.
For example, I am your preacher and a teacher, but I am not your conscience or your conduit into the mind of God. Occasionally I glimpse the mystery of God or some truth about the Holy, but my call is to share what I have glimpsed and invite you to journey with me.
So much of the wicked religious bigotry being peddled in the name of Christianity these days has its source in largely male authorities enforcing their will and power needs onto the churches they serve. As I see it, it’s often more about male ego and power and keeping woman in a subservient role. They use homophobia and transphobia and reproductive choice as manipulative tools and for fear mongering. And their congregations, often large, believing their pastors, are then co-opted by politicians to exercise power over the rest of us. That is a threat to our democracy and that could well be the undoing of our nation.
In the name of religion, these pastors and these politicians then act as if the rest of us don’t have the right to be wrong. Let me name it clearly, a religion of absolutes is not the faith of Jesus, it is not the faith of the Buddha, or of the prophet Mohammad, or of the essence of any spirituality that exists to foster love, humility, service or compassion. It is about power and repression and is in effect a form of fascism fed by hate and fear.
Let me dance a bit further into the ideas we share in this tradition. Idea one, the sovereignty of God. God is beyond all I can explain, and God is within all that we are. God is love and the complexity and simplicity of all that it means to say that. When I say too much about God, then I have played fast and loose on the slippery slope of idolatry. When I talk about God with too much confidence, I slide down that slope farther than I dare, and you need to rescue me.
Idea two, that rescue is called the priesthood of all believers. I am not your priest. I am not an authority to whom you must yield. I am one of your pastors, a shepherd and teacher, who stands with you in need of the grace of God’s love. We are priests to one another, called into a community of caring and dialogue, named Plymouth. We are called to learn together how to be faithful and how to love one another and how to serve this community and this world.
Idea three, that comes naturally to our tradition when we leave behind the idea of top-down authority: the freedom of the individual conscience. As I said a moment ago, we all have the right to be wrong. “There is yet more light and truth to break forth from God’s Holy Word,” as pastor Robinson said to the Plymouth pilgrims before they got on the boat, four hundred and one years ago. And that leads inescapably to the notion that “God is still speaking.”
So much of the racism and nationalism that plagues our nation’s past and shadows this world’s future is based on Christian triumphalism. That idea enabled the Europeans who came to this continent, to believe that the indigenous people they met here were not created in the image of God. That evil lie was used to excuse chattel slavery and Jim Crow and voter suppression and white supremacy. In the past, those ideas hid in the darkness and wore white sheets to hide identities. Today it is proudly proclaimed by people who call themselves followers of Jesus. Guns and tiki torches and dog whistle politics, gather in a witch’s brew of hate. When we say that “God is still speaking,” we call out the arrogance of those who believes that in their fear, the final word from God has been spoken.
Today we heard the words of a prophet ancient and in a moment we will hear the words of a prophet modern. The ancient prophet, Habakkuk, whose little book lies hidden in the back of the Hebrew scriptures, spoke words of challenge and judgement to the people of Judah 2800 years ago. He called out and condemned the lack of justice in the political, judicial, and economic systems of his day and he predicts with graphic detail the demise of that rotten to the core system by a God who will punish unjust leaders and bring about equity and a new way of living. And what he says is scary because what he says seems truer today than it was 2800 years ago.
And yet what he says is not without hope. Because beyond the dire situation of that time and this, good people, loving people, the people of Jesus, who long for and work for justice and equity, are promised the strength to go on in their journey of loving. They share a vision of God’s just “kindom,” a place where all God’s children are welcomed and affirmed. A place where a vision of something better has a chance and where truth prevails because it is true.
And, in the meantime? In the time between, when so much that’s ugly and small-hearted seems so strong. Listen to the words of a modern prophet, the poet Wendell Berry, listen for a word from God for your journey:
Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front by Wendell Berry
Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head....
[Please click link above to read full poem.]
These words are true, they may be trusted! Amen.
Rev. Ron Patterson
October 23, 2022
2 Timothy 4:6-8
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
Fort Collins, CO
Did you ever attend the reading of a will? Except for a few times on PBS mainly on the Mystery series, or in the pages of a book, I never did, did you?
Well, this morning, we attended the reading of a will or a memoir or a sort of life summary compiled by the apostle Paul, a short time, some say, before the Romans killed him. Paul was facing a death sentence, he was probably in jail and like a lot of people who know that their time is short, he turns around and takes a look at where he has been and then announces exactly where he believes he is headed.
And he makes a little statement that I pray to God every single person on this life journey will be able to make at some point on their pilgrimage. He says, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”
Now, I can’t imagine anything better or anything sweeter or anything more powerful than being able to come to the end of the line with a life affirmation like that one. That’s coming to the end of life on a high note. That’s truly claiming the crown of victory. And the question is how do you or I get there—how do we lay the foundation to build that sort of life? How do we live so that when we come to the end or to that point which our faith says is the real beginning, we can honestly say that we have fought the good fight, finished the race and kept the faith?
And since I want to be able to look back over my life and figure that it amounted to something, I really want to know how to do that and I hope you do too, so let me make three suggestions for us to consider and let me put these suggestions in the form of questions that together we can chew over with one another.
First, what fight are we in? If you want to be able to say that you have fought the good fight, take a long hard look at what you are fighting for and what you invest your energy and your passion and your time in supporting. This is a Consecration Sunday question, it seems to me, so let’s ask it as individuals and as a congregation. What fight are we in?
There’s lots of things people seem willing to fight for. So called second amendment rights make some people crazy violent. Ideas about freedom based on fear make people willing to mob others. Lies seem to transition into accepted truth in the hands of clever politicians empowered by bad religion and dirty dollars. Am I the only one surprised almost daily at the creative depth of nasty negativity?
A wise friend suggested to me once that it is always important to choose your battles, and while I have opinions on almost everything — opinions that would probably alienate more people that I could convince, let me suggest that fighting the good fight is not about fighting, but about figuring out which of those daily struggles are good and loving and compassionate and those actions and attitudes which reflect the way of Jesus.
If you just want to fight, get mad. Put a nasty profane flag on your truck and drive up and down on College Avenue. If you want to fight, smear those who disagree with you. If you want to fight, raise up the rabble and make a fuss to defend your turf. If you want to battle, organize the most selfish interests or the lowest common denominator of a bunch of fear filled people and you will surely make lots of headlines — it happens every day. If “not in my back yard” is the only fight I’m willing to fight then by the light of God’s love, I am truly in a sad spiritual state.
On the other hand, if you or I want to fight the good fight, apply the Gospel. Include self-sacrifice and some patience and some moral struggle. If you want to fight the good fight, tuck the story of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal child into your memory bank and take on the issues that come your way with a mixture of remembering that God loves you no matter what and because of that we had better fight hard to love others with the same intensity — no matter what color or nationality or political party they happen to represent. It’s not easy, but if you want to be able to say you have fought the good fight, make sure you are in a good fight and not just a fight.
Second, what race are we running? Another great question for Consecration Sunday. There are a lot of races out there. I know quite a few of you have starred in some important races. New discoveries, new technologies, an expansion of scientific knowledge, new ways of understanding the human condition. This congregation is full of academics and other star performers in all sorts of races. Repeatedly, I have been amazed and filled with joy as I catch glimpses of the life story of so many of you.
But since life is a journey and not a destination, I think the challenge of every single day, no matter where we are on that journey is to determine which race we are running and to decide if that race is worth winning.
I don’t need to convince any of you, I think, that a great deal of life is about busyness. All of us have things we need to do. All of us need to make a living and take care of our responsibilities — that’s just a fact, but when those needs take over our lives and cause us to loose sight of why we are doing those things we can suddenly find ourselves running not in the human race, but in the rat race.
Let me share a story. There was a man in the community in Florida where we lived who had a successful career. Every year, he would buy thousands of new shoes for children and if you ask him why he did it, he would tell you that when he was a little boy, his mom and dad couldn’t afford shoes and he was ashamed to go to school. And then he would get big smile on his face and say: “All God’s children need shoes.” Now that’s a simple race, but that is a race that by the grace of God he ran and that was a race worth winning. What race are you running?
And let me make it clear. This is not a competitive race. It is not about wealth or spectacular results. It is about putting yourself out there somewhere to do something that leaves some corner of this good earth however small a bit better for your having passed that way.
A couple of weeks ago, I showed up one morning at the church building and discovered two members of this congregation painting the curb stones at the entrances with red paint, to remind people that those entrances need to be kept clear for emergency vehicles. They were doing something they could because it needed doing. They are not professional painters, no one hired them to do it, they did it because it needed doing. Is there some race you need to run? Are there things you need to do, sometimes simple, maybe easy, but that need doing and that might set a pattern of behavior that could lead you toward the sort of miracle making that makes this race of life worth running?
Third, and final question on this Consecration Sunday: what faith are we keeping? And here I suppose that someone who doesn’t know me very well would expect me to lay out a list of the things you or I need to believe to be keepers of the faith. Well, the longer I live the shorter that list becomes. Keeping the faith is not about doctrine or a list of rules. It is not about how much I know about the Bible or how carefully I follow the tradition into which I was born.
When I meet Jesus, I do not expect to be quizzed over how well I understood the Nicene Creed or how perfectly I taught the tenets of Reformed Protestant Christianity. Several years ago at Charnley’s brother’s wedding, the priest, who was a person of gentle faith, invited all of the members of the bridal party — whether they were Catholic or Protestant — to share in Communion as a beautiful affirmation of faith, for a family which included Roman Catholics and Protestants.
That was the plan as he explained it to the bridal party, but on the day of the wedding as he went to serve my Protestant Sister-in-law, one of the members of his congregation came to his side and in a clear stage whisper said: “Father, she’s not of the faith” — to prevent her priest from making a terrible mistake and serving communion to a Protestant.
That priest knew that faith is not a holy relic of the past. Faith is not a shrine to what some other generation of people believed sacred. Faith has nothing to do with labels. Faith is loving as Jesus loved. Faith is caring as Jesus cared. Faith is giving to a hungry person the bread they need to live. Keeping the faith is living the faith in any way we can.
So then, let’s take a look. Let’s take a look at our lives. Let’s turn around and take a long look. Are we fighting the right fight? Are we running the best race? Are we keeping a faith that makes a difference? May the light of God’s love in Jesus find a home and a heart in this congregation and our loving. Amen.
Rev. Ron Patterson
Plymouth Congregational, UCC
Fort Collins, CO
This morning, I want to share a memory with you, a personal memory from my childhood and invite you to think about a similar story from your own life. This is one of those sermons where I’m going to tell a story, not because it is the be-all and end all of stories, it’s probably not even a very good story, but I’m going to tell it because it’s a part of my story about gratitude, that I hope will get you to thinking about a grateful part of your story.
My great-grandmother was born shortly after the Civil War. Her father had been in the Union Army in an Ohio Regiment, and she spent her girlhood in a small Ohio town. She married my great-grandfather and moved to his family’s farm. When I came along, she was a woman in her ninety’s with glasses as thick as coke bottles and skin as tough as leather and hands gnarled from milking too many cows for too many years. She was a brilliant farm manager, a tough business woman and a sharp tongued judge of morality. She had no patience for most lesser mortals and would, I am told, pronounce her opinions on almost any topic. She was far from a perfect person. She had flaws which made some of the family dislike her intensely—particularly her six daughters-in-law, other family members fear her, and more than a few of her seven children and dozens of grandchildren uncomfortable in her presence. But I knew none of that at the time.
I only knew that she loved little children and I was a child, just one of her seventy or eighty great-grand children and despite learning later in life of her imperfections, I loved her and thought she was amazing. My clearest memory of her was from when I was about six or seven and she would sit in her rocking chair clutching her worn leather Bible in one hand and her oversized magnifying glass in the other. She would sit for hours rocking and reading that book. And I remember pulling out a kitchen chair from the table to over near where she rocked and sitting down next to her. And if you did that, she would read out loud with a strong voice as clear to me now as my own: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters….” or “I lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help, my help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth.” And she would keep reading as long as one of the little ones sat beside her, and then after a time, she would take our hand and tell us how important it was to pray and to thank God and be grateful. And then, she would pray with us. And that’s what she did. That’s what she did, day in and day out until her eyesight failed and her cataracts brought her reading to an end.
And the doctor said that her heart could not stand cataract surgery, which at that time—over sixty years ago, was a terrible ordeal, but she insisted. She told that doctor that unless she could read her Bible, it didn’t matter if she survived or not. So she had that surgery and for the next several years, she kept on rocking and reading that Bible and praying and giving thanks because that was how she had decided to spend the remainder of the days God gave her.
Now somewhere in your life there is, I hope, a story like that one. A story about a person who refused to lose heart. A story about a person whose faith was the center of their life. A story of gratitude. It could be a story about a person who gave you some extraordinary gift or who you saw giving to another. It might be the memory of someone who appeared in your life in a special way at a time of crisis and who helped you make it through. What I am asking you to do is to think about someone you loved or who you respected who taught you what it meant to live the words of Jesus about giving or about praying always and never losing heart.
That’s thought I want to share today. Be grateful and don’t lose heart. There are so many things we can loose and so many of us have lost so much, but if you don’t lose heart and if you are grateful, I believe everything that looks like an end is only a beginning.
But that’s not easy, is it? We do lose heart; we do lose heart, don’t we? We get worried about some thing, or someone says something that upsets us or we get wound up about something that is happening in the news or in the neighborhood or to someone we love. Sometimes, we lose heart when our jobs get us down.
For me it sometimes doesn’t take too much and I get down on myself and start doubting and twisting in the wind of my own fears. And forget all about being grateful for my blessings. Does that ever happen to you?
Well, I think Jesus knew that about us, he knew that we have this chronic tendency to lose heart and so he told the story we heard this morning of the unjust judge and the persistent widow who kept pestering that judge with her complaints, day and night, until finally the unjust judge gave the woman what she wanted. And then Jesus says, think about it, if a dishonest judge can finally do the right thing, what about God who loves everyone of us as if we are the only one in the universe to love, won’t God listen to our prayers and take care of us? Be grateful and don’t lose heart!
Several years ago, I started a little activity based on absolute frustration. Part of my job when I served in New York City was to take phone calls that the switchboard at Marble Collegiate Church didn’t know what to do with. Often they were calls from people with problems that were so severe that I found myself just sitting there with my mouth open wondering what on earth I could possibly do to help.
Well I learned a long time ago, painfully and slowly, that advice is cheap and that giving advice, giving your answers to your problems to another person for their problems rarely works. That advice is often not the best thing you can give another person. Think about the ministry of Jesus. What did he do when someone came to him with a problem? What did he do? Did he give advice? Did he have a quick and ready answer? Not usually. Not usually.
He almost never told people what do to. What he did was offer himself. What he did was listen and invite the person looking for help to see themselves as a child of God. What he did was to invite people into a relationship with him and with God. Because he knew that if we were in relationship, if we were connected to the source of power, to the source of life, then we would find the strength to face the problem and never lose heart.
So after a very long learning curve, before I took one of those phone calls, I would take a moment and offer a simple prayer: “Lord, help me listen, help me understand, and help me accept whatever it is I am about to hear and then give it to you. And then I would listen to the person and then I would listen some more and I remember one day I was listening to a woman who had called from England. It was very late at night there and I could tell she was exhausted and at the end of her rope. She had some tremendous family problems, she was going through a divorce, she had a son who was an absolute nightmare to her and her mother was dying and I was three thousand miles away from her pain and tempted all the while to start giving her advice, but I just kept listening and suddenly, something prompted me to pick up a post-it note—you know, one of those little yellow slips of gummed paper and I wrote her first name on that piece of paper for some reason.
Then I said to her, you know, your problems are so immense, but my faith says to me that they are not larger than God’s love for you. I can’t make your problems go away, but I want to ask your permission to do something. I have written your first name on a slip of paper. Chances are we are never going to meet in this life, but I am going to tape that slip of paper onto the screen of my computer terminal and every time I look at my computer, dozens of time every day, I am going to repeat your name and ask God to give you the strength you need not to lose heart and to be grateful.
To this day, I don’t know where that idea came from, but every time I run into a situation which pushes me to the edge or which exhausts the possibilities of the gifts God has given me and I feel like losing heart myself or am with someone else in that same fix, I reach for a post-it note and put that name somewhere I can see it as a reminder that I need to keep praying and never lose heart and be grateful for God’s love.
Now, somewhere in your life there is the story of someone who touched your life and tried to teach you the power of never giving up and never losing heart. Cherish that memory and take their story as your marching orders for the days you have left. As I see it, there is no better way and no deeper purpose for your life and mine than to live those memories and to share them.
One other thing: somewhere there is someone who needs to learn that same message from us. Perhaps it’s the person sitting next to you this morning or one of your neighbors or someone you have not met. Maybe it’s this troubled world of ours and some of the hate blinded and hurt burdened individuals running around spreading discord or killing people. You may never meet a person like that face to face, but they need your prayers. Maybe it’s some of those folks so convinced that their opinions are right that they figure there’s not enough room on this good earth for the rest of us. Well, they need our prayers too, and whether they know it or not, a group of good people, people of faith and courage in this nation and in our faith tradition and in every nation and every faith tradition, may be the ones who will keep this good earth of ours from self-destructing.
Our reading for this morning ends on that note. It talks about that day when Jesus will come again. It ends with the question: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” And the answer is a resounding “yes,” if we keep praying, if we keep being grateful, and never, never, never lose heart!
“Sharing is Who We Are”
October 9, 2022; Second Sunday of Stewardship
Plymouth Congregational, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
1 When you have come into the land that the [HOLY ONE] your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, 2 you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the [HOLY ONE] your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the [HOLY ONE] your God will choose as a dwelling for God’s holy presence.
3 You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, "Today I declare to the [HOLY ONE] [our]God that I have come into the land that the [HOLY ONE] swore to our ancestors to give us." 4 When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the [HOLY ONE] your God, 5 you shall make this response before the [HOLY ONE] your God: "A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, [a stranger,] few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. 6 When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, 7 we cried to the [HOLY ONE] the God of our ancestors; the [HOLY ONE] heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. 8 The [HOLY ONE] brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders;9 and God brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. 10 So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, [HOLY ONE,] have given me." You shall set it down before the LORD your God and bow down before the LORD your God. 11 Then you, together with the Levites, [the priests] and the aliens, [the strangers,] who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the [HOLY ONE] your God has given to you and to your house.
At the time of the story we just heard, the Hebrew people had been wandering, nomadic people for at least two generations as they came out of exile in Egypt following God’s lead. They were faithful people some days and others not so much. Sound familiar? According to this ancient, remembered story they receive an inheritance of land from God, land promised to their ancestors, that they are to share with the Levites and aliens. The Levites were the tribe of priests who had no land of their own to grow crops because they attended to the people’s covenant life with God. The aliens were those not of the twelve tribes of Israel. People who had joined them in their wanderings or people of other faiths – some already living in the land - or people who were immigrants. This whole story is about remembering to remember! Remember God who liberates and sustains the people. Remember to bring the first fruits of your inherited land to God so that they can be shared with those who are in need. Why? Because this inherited land belongs to God. And you, the people, belong to God. Therefore, the first act of God’s community is sharing. These were the Hebrews, God’s people, remembering and seeking to live out the justice and compassion of the One God they followed who had called them long ago, brought them out of exile and into a good land.
In our stewardship campaign this year we are remembering who we are after the exile of pandemic lockdown. We are Plymouth! As Hal likes to say, we are an outpost community of faith on the plains of CO furthering the kingdom, the kindom of God that Jesus announced is already within and among us. We are an interdependent beloved community of folks seeking to follow the ways of God’s Love we know through Jesus. We strive for simplicity of living and working together, yet we are also a complex community of intertwined relationships, passions, and purposes. Miraculously, the Spirit of the Holy comes along to guide us when lose our way, when we struggle, when we fail, as well as when we are at our best. As our 2022 Stewardship campaign materials tell us, “we were forced into a new era, a new way for us to be church,”[i] through our last three years of exile in pandemic protocols. Like our ancient Hebrew ancestors, we must remember who we are after exile and learn to live in a new land. Like our ancestors we stand at the threshold of a new life hearing the guidance of Moses of how best to live in that new land. Remember who you are, God’s beloveds. Remember who gave you this land. Remember to share.
Our stewardship materials invite us to remember through some salient questions: “What does Plymouth mean to you? How does being part of the community express your life of faith and your identity? How does this unique expression of God’s Realm speak to your greatest need and longings?”[ii] One of the things Plymouth is to me is sharing. I have learned so much about sharing and being someone who shares during my years at Plymouth. My favorite, and most recent example, is the Student Welcome Event we had in August to welcome and equip CSU international students and those in the Lutheran Campus Ministry Housing Security program. Our fellowship hall and north patio area was hall filled to the brim with household goods to GIVE AWAY to those students. Not to sell at some low price, but to GIVE AWAY! What a picture of the wealth of America that can be shared! With those arriving in our land with just a couple of suitcases of clothes or those coming to college as first-generation students from poor families with little resources! Most of us have so much stuff, my friends! And what a joy it is share! Not to give away worn out things to ARC, but to share things in our own houses that are barely or rarely used. Or to share goods we have the money to go out a purchase. Then give away something new! I watched in wonder as that day unfolded with the magic of smiles and gratitude. A microcosm of what could be in our world if those of us with the top 10% - 20% of the wealth would share more with those in need. Gift economy.
Opportunities to share at Plymouth abound! Through faithfully giving our financial resources through our annual Stewardship campaign, through Share the Plate each month, through our four yearly UCC special offerings. Through events such as CROP Walk and the annual Youth Sleep Out for Homelessness Prevention. Through the many, many opportunities to share the privilege of our wealth through the Mission Marketplace coming up November 5 and 6. Now then think of the ways you share resources of time as volunteers with Faith Family Hospitality and the Immigration Team sponsoring our beloved Afghani family, through volunteering for Ministry Marketplace! We are like a busy, bustling community of ants! Really! Ants “tell each other where food is, not hoarding individually, but operating on a principle that the more of them who gather food, the more food they will have as a community.”[iii] The more they have to share! And our community extends beyond these walls into the world!
Think of the ways your share yourself in relationship through Christian Formation book discussions and study groups, through volunteering with our children in Godly Play Sunday school, through prayer groups and fellowship groups, through helping with memorial service receptions and in the seasonal yard clean-ups and caring for the memorial garden. I could go on and on! Think of the ways you share yourselves in relationships with Plymouth and the wider community working for justice through our new Climate Action Ministry Team and our Ending Gun Violence Ministry Team. Our new Ministry Match survey and database program is empowering our ability to share ourselves in relationship, to quickly integrate people new to our community who want to be involved. (If you haven’t taken the Ministry Match survey, please do! You can find it right here in the bulletin insert! If you are new and not yet involved, click on the ministries you were matched with in your survey results to discover who to contact so you can get involved!)
We are like ants, gathering resources to share. We are also like trees in complex and life-giving relationship with one another. Think of all the trees that grow from common root systems underground as one being reaching up in many bodies – birch, ash, aspen, mangrove. Think of how oak trees wrap their roots around each other under the earth, thus surviving even hurricane strength winds. Think of the mycelium, the threading network of fibers that communicates between trees, particularly around toxic growth, and thus protects the trees from harm.[iv] We are sharing in ever deepening and intertwined relationships with one another that give us life and that also extend beyond our doors bringing life to the wider world. As the psalmist sang, we are like a community of trees planted by streams of living water, the living water of Love. We nurture and we share.
We are Plymouth! It gives us joy to share, doesn’t it! It’s okay to feel good when we share. However, we are not invited by God to share because it makes us feel good. We are invited to share because we are made in God’s image, with the spark of God’s Love divine within us. And sharing is the essence of God’s love. The Holy ONE is always sharing. Let us remember this when it feels scary to share of our time or talents or financial resources. We are part of God, so sharing is who we are
Sharing is who we are as human beings. In the very depths of who we are as human community. “Building community is to the collective, [the whole of humanity,] like spiritual practice is to the individual.”[v] It takes generosity and vulnerability to build community. This is what Moses was trying to teach the Hebrew people. Generosity means giving of what you have without strings or expectations attached.” Bringing our first fruits, not our left-overs. Vulnerability means [showing up] and showing your needs” so that even as you give, you can receive.[vi] How can we increase our sharing and strengthen the ties that gather us for new growth after exile? Through generosity and vulnerability as we gather like ants, telling others where to find bread of the earth and the bread of heaven. Through vulnerability as we are connected at the roots like trees, connected at the roots of our faith, sharing nurture, healing, and strength.
We are Plymouth. We have a God-given ability to share. We are invited, more than invited, we are guided, and directed to share. Sharing is who we are. Thanks be to God!
©The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson, 2022 and beyond. May be reprinted only with permission.
[i] Plymouth 2022 Stewardship Matierials
[iii] adrienne maree brown, Emergent Strategy, Shaping Change, Changing Worlds, (AK Press, Chico, CA: 2017, 86.)
[iv] brown, 85.
[v] brown, 88.
[vi] brown, 91.
“We Are Plymouth!”
October 2, 2022
Plymouth Congregational Church
Fort Collins, CO
We are Plymouth! Today we begin our stewardship campaign. Most of you know exactly what that means. A few of us ask the rest of us to give the time and the resources it takes to run this place for the next year. Like most congregations, we set aside a time each year to talk about Stewardship. It begins today and goes on for the next few weeks. Each of your ministers and some of your lay leaders will be sharing their faith and their understanding of this important topic.
Now, some folks think that means talking about money and that makes some people uncomfortable — I know that. I understand that. It made me uncomfortable in the past, or I said it did, even though Jesus talked about money in the same breath and with the same intensity that he talked about love and right relationships and being reborn. In fact, unlike most of us, who have this human tendency to be hypocritical and keep our lives in hermetically sealed compartments, with money here, and relationship here, and politics over there, hoping that the neighbors won’t take notice of our inconsistent behavior, Jesus didn’t seem to be able to do that.
One of the reasons I believe that Jesus was somehow divine was that he was no hypocrite and that for me, being saved or finding salvation has a great deal to do with becoming less of a hypocrite in my own life. I talk a much better game than the one I am able to play most of the time, but then Jesus already knows that. Jesus said it plain: "Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Luke 12:34).
I remember an encounter many years ago with an individual who had nothing good to say about the church and church people. He touched most of the normal complaints including reminding me that all ‘they did was talk about money.” I listened and kept on listening, remembering the wisdom of one of my mentors who tried to teach me that you rarely learn much from those with whom you agree.
Sadly, most of what he had to say, was spot on, even though most of his negative attitudes came from experiences that I never had. After a long time of listening to his complaints, he ended his excuse making with one final jab. He said to me, “I just can’t stand going to church because it’s so full of hypocrites.”
At that point I could take it no longer and I began to laugh and that stopped him for a minute, and I said to him, “But isn’t that the point? That’s who we are. That’s what church is, people in recovery.” And then I tried to explain that church is people seeking to catch a glimpse of what it means to love and to care and to be in mission. We are Plymouth, not perfect, not without flaws or even some contradictions, but people on a journey toward the love of Jesus in community with one another. We are Plymouth!
Every year at this time, a few of us take on the job of asking, a job that most people want no part of, but a few of us know it has to be done and so a few of us got together and choose a theme and wrote a few good letters and designed a brochure and a pledge card to invite the rest of us to do what most of us know needs to be done. We are Plymouth.
That letter and that brochure and that pledge card will arrive at your house later this week. We are Plymouth!
Let me invite those of you who receive that packet to take a good look and a long read. A few of us worked hard for the last month or so and since we are Plymouth, I am confident that most of us will respond and most of us will understand what we need to do. Since we are Plymouth, we will do our best to help by making a gift that is meaningful to us, that includes our time and our resources and that reflects a commitment to show up and help out, by including with our pledge, our positive energy and our prayers.
We are Plymouth and because we are Plymouth, we remember that Jesus said once that the only thing we would ever really have in this life is what we were willing to give away. That he said what we have belongs to God. That he said that the hairs on our heads are numbered—well, maybe he didn’t mean that literally for some of us, but that we are all one and mystically united with a divine energy that is beyond all we know or understand, but within the essence of all that is, and that essence is about living by giving. And that includes our time and our resources and our spiritual energy and those beautiful things that are at the very center of our essential selves. We are Plymouth.
We are Plymouth and so we know that how we share will help this place grow and nurture the next generation and friends we have not met yet and new members and youth and children and ministers and leaders and mission in the community and around the world that will help keep this place strong and vital for a new generation.
Now, that is the first part of what I want to say this morning and now I am going veer off in another direction and think out loud in your presence about what I believe it means to say that we are Plymouth.
Budgets and finances are a necessary part of a church’s life. After all, we are an organization. But what makes a church a church, what makes a community, a community of Christ? Let me suggest a few things and invite you to think of a few more.
What is a church? Is it one hour a week when we think religious thoughts? Is it a chance to spend some quiet time or some social time? Is it the building where we meet? Is it an old program hardwired into our psyches as some sort of habit neither good nor bad but a routine like tooth brushing or flossing? I did it as a kid, so I guess I better keep on doing it?
Here's what I think. The essence of Church is living out the call of Jesus. We are people answering a call sometimes soft, sometimes distant, some days mystical and not always understood, but real enough to make us want to get together to live together for the sake of others and in the process discover some truth about our own lives. It is a quest for deeper meaning and a truth that offers bread for this scary journey.
It's not about guilt, although it might start there. It’s not about duty, because duty wears out over time, its not about what mom wanted me to do or what grandpa always did, although there’s nothing wrong with honoring those people who helped make us who we are. In my mind it comes down to a conscious decision about who I want to be and how I intend to act. And given all that is happening in this world and in this nation politically and I’m going to share my thoughts about that in a couple of weeks, given all that, acting together in love and in service as the followers of Jesus has never been more important. It’s about standing up for transformative justice and reproductive freedom. It’s about finding a way together to resist racism and homophobia and the sort of corrosive politics of hate that threatens to destroy this nation.
Many years ago, I heard someone ask a question that has been at the center of my heart ever since. She said: “If you were accused of being a follower of Jesus, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” Saying that “We Are Plymouth” and acting as if we believe that, proves the point.
Look at today. Dozens of us are doing a Crop Walk this afternoon so that thousands around the world will have food and a new opportunity for the dignity that all of God’s children need. We are part of a world family. We are Plymouth!
Today we received a special offering for our United Church of Christ. Neighbors in Need is an effort by our faith family to end injustice in this world. This year the offering is dedicated to advocacy for fair wages and decent working conditions for all of God’s children. We take this offering because we are Plymouth.
Today we break the bread of communion and share the cup. That is not an isolated event. Today we call World Communion Sunday, because what we are doing here is not just about us, it is about our connection and our participation and our invitation to see ourselves as members of one another and of a world household of faith that seeks to remember the Jesus who called us to love one another and this good earth. We are Plymouth!
There is one story about Jesus that occurs in all four gospels. In fact, it appears six times in total. I have often thought that the people who followed Jesus first must have realized how important these stories were. Do you know which stories I’m talking about? I took one of them as my text for today. They are all a bit different, but they all have one thing in common. They are miracles of multiplication. They tell a single story and the story they tell is our story.
Where Jesus is, there is always enough. Where the Holy Spirit is active, ordinary things get multiplied in miraculous ways. The hungry are fed. The lonely are welcomed. The thirsty find refreshment. The suffering find support and justice. That is our story. That is our call, because we are Plymouth! Thanks be to God! Amen.