The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC, Fort Collins, Colorado
29 October 2023
A story in today’s Washington Post caught my eye on this Reformation Sunday. It details the recent Synod of the Roman Catholic Church, which for the first time included women and lay delegates as voting members. Issues like the possibility of blessing unions (not marriage) of same-sex Catholic couples and possibly having women serve as deacons were at least talked about. In criticizing more progressive German clergy who are already blessing same-sex unions, one Polish archbishop said that they were advocating reforms that “draw profusely from Protestant theology and the language of modern politics.” As we weigh what our sisters and brothers struggled with during this Synod, it’s a good time for us, too, to be considering what it means to be church. It is important for us as a congregation to be aware of what sort of new reformation may be upon us, even today.
When most of us think of the Reformation, we think of the Augustinian priest Martin Luther in 1517 nailing his 95 theses on the door of the church in Wittenburg, stating his objections to abuses of power by the church in Rome. And it was a momentous step.
Do you think Luther knew what he was doing? Do you think he thought it would cause a schism in the western church? Did he know that it would spark a Counter-reformation in the Roman Catholic Church? Do you think he knew that it would result in the many wars of religion in Europe that would claim millions of lives and extend for nearly 200 years? I suspect that he did not. He certainly didn’t anticipate that the 1517 Reformation would spawn further reformations across Europe, with Calvinists, Anabaptists, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Unitarians, and others.
The Reformation was not – is not – monolithic. It happened in different ways in different places and in different times. And it is difficult to overemphasize the critical importance of it as a hinge in European history. It essentially put the final nail in the coffin of the Late Middle Ages and ushered in the Early Modern period.
Nothing in the church would ever be the same…except the things that are. You probably know some shifts in Protestant faith that come straight from Luther: two sacraments (baptism and communion) instead of seven. A different way of looking at communion: Transubstantiation (meaning that the communion elements literally became the body and blood of Christ) was disavowed. The reliance on scripture as wholly adequate source of authority, rather than papal pronouncement. Married clergy. Direct access to God, rather than needing the intermediary of a priest. And salvation that is a gift of grace based on faith alone, rather than relying on good works as a means of trying to earn merit.
Luther paraphrased the psalm we heard this morning, such that “God is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in times of trouble” became “a might fortress is our God.”
This psalm was important to the Reformers, as it became more obvious that their heterodox views meant not just risking their own lives but that they could be used to incite violence and civil war.
Hear these words of the psalmist as you think of the war in Israel and Gaza:
“He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;
he burns the shields with fire.
‘Be still, and know that I am God!
I am exalted among the nations,
I am exalted in the earth.’
The LORD of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.”
It is not the intention of our God or Jesus to use violence, but to secure peace, to break weapons, to call us to be still.
One of the questions that someone in the congregation asked during the Instant Sermon over the summer concerned what the church of the future would look like. And since none of us received that crystal ball we were hoping for, the best we can do is rely of God’s grace and guidance going forward.
Some things that we Protestants do go right back past 1517. Worship is still the central mission of every church, though of course it has morphed over time. We still baptize infants (though other Protestants don’t) and we celebrate communion. I suspect that the church of the future will continue to do those things, as well as to have potluck suppers.
One of the great ideas from our tradition is that we are not only Reformed, but reforming. It rests on a Latin phrase, Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda est. The church is reformed and is always reforming.
Reformed and reforming. You do know what that implies, don’t you? It’s the C-word…change! Most of us think that change is fine and necessary, but when asked if WE want to change, it’s a different story.
I want to acknowledge that change is incredibly difficult, especially when everything in your life seems to be changing and it can be embittering when the one thing you think is really stable – your church – starts to change.
One of the things you may not be fully aware of is how dramatically the pandemic accelerated change in American Christianity. Because we invested in great livestreaming capability, a sizable portion of our congregation is worshiping from home. Last Sunday, more that 70 screens were viewed during our two services, so it’s likely that we had about 95 worshipers who aren’t physically in the sanctuary. (We’re glad you’re in the virtual balcony, but we are still adjusting to so many of our folks being online and not in the pews.) We’ve seen the closure of the American Baptist Church and Abyssinian Christian Church in Fort Collins. Our own denomination has seen a 50% membership decline since the 1980s. Fewer people are entering seminary to prepare for parish ministry, because there are fewer congregations who can afford even one full-time clergyperson. This year, 12 people comprised the incoming Master of Divinity class at Iliff. When I started at Iliff in 1996, the incoming class was 60: five times as large.
One of my favorite Roman Catholic writers, Fr. Richard Rohr, reflects, “In North America and much of Europe, we are witnessing a dramatic increase in ‘nones,’ people who don’t identify with a particular faith tradition. While I ache for those who have been wounded by religion and no longer feel at home in church, the dissatisfaction within Christianity has sparked some necessary and healthy changes. Episcopal Bishop Mark Dyer…aptly called these recurring periods of upheaval giant ‘rummage sales’ in which the church rids itself of what is no longer needed and rediscovers treasures it had forgotten…. This is a difficult and frightening task, which is why we only seem to do it every 500 years or so! If we look at church history, we can see the pattern.”
What Rohr is referring to is the great rummage sale of the Reformation in 1517, the great schism between the eastern and western branches of Christianity in 1054, and the rise of monasticism in the sixth century. And we’re in the midst of another 500-year rummage sale.
So, today we find the church in Europe and North America in a stage of decline, ready for reformation. The funny thing about reformations is that nobody knows exactly where they will lead.
Sometimes in the UCC, we seem to think that if we just work harder, if we just do one more social justice project, if we just expand our program offerings, it will turn things around. And to be honest, we’ve been pretty good at holding back the flood here at Plymouth. But even if, like Hans Brinker, we keep our finger in the dyke to hold back the torrent, the dam isn’t going to hold forever. American Christianity, mainline Protestantism, the UCC, and even Plymouth will look very different in 20 years, even if none of us knows quite how.
The key to successful reformation is to get rid of the bathwater and have the wisdom to hold fast to the baby and not throw her out, too. The 1517 Reformation threw out plenty of bathwater, and there was some baby that got tossed out as well, and we’ve re-adopted some of those things. For instance, when I was growing up in a New England Congregational church, the only vestments clergy wore were academic robes, never a stole around their shoulders and certainly not a cassock alb, like I’m wearing right now. We adopted those gradually as an acknowledgement of our ecumenism. I never saw liturgical colors growing up. Today, I see gifts in monasticism. And I am deeply informed by mysticism and contemplative Christian spirituality, which also went by the wayside. Thankfully, we’ve retrieved some of that tradition.
I’m not aware of anyone who can tell just what the future of Christianity is going to look like. That can be scary, because we know it will be different, yet we’re not quite sure how. Part of our task in the coming years is to identify the baby and preserve it carefully, even as we drain the bathwater and let it go. It’s a matter both of embracing change while also conserving the best pieces of our tradition that are central to who we are as Christians.
Always reforming means that we have to embrace change and ride the wave. It also means that we need to spend time doing deep, thoughtful discernment with God about where we are being led to change and why. I pray that we have the grace to listen to the God who is still speaking and calling us to be the church.
May it be so. Amen.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning, Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
9 July 2023
How many of you learned this psalm by heart when you were in Sunday school? It’s probably the best-known psalm and by many the most beloved. One of my favorite sung versions is by Bobby McFerrin, and we used part of his paraphrase as our Call to Worship. It is one that we sometimes hear during a memorial service as a comfort, knowing that the Lord is our shepherd, our guide, our protector. In fact, on those occasions, I will sometimes use the King James or Revised Standard Version, since it is what many folks grew up hearing and that familiarity can bring comfort.
The opening verse talks about having everything we need. Hear these different translations: “I shall not want,” “I have all I need,” “I lack nothing.” How does that sit with you? Does it ring true? Do you have everything you need? Maybe if you are just starting out or things are really tight financially, it could be that you don’t have all you need…or at least all the things you want.
As the prophet Mick Jagger once sang, “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find you get what you need.” The rub is distinguishing the one from the other.
So, what do we really need? Food, shelter, medical care, education, spiritual connection. We also have a whole host of wants. If we didn’t, it would decimate the advertising industry, which wants us the leap into Prime Days on Amazon, buy a new car with have a four-figure monthly auto loan payment, and to ask our doctor if Lunextra is right for you.
Nothing keeps the wheels of advertising spinning like fear of inadequacy. “Never let them see you sweat.” “Be all that you can be.” “The best a man can get.” “Maybe she’s born with it…maybe it’s Maybelline.” And the other thing advertisers like to do is to weave a web of scarcity that ensnares unsuspecting viewers. I literally read this on a blog this week: “Scarcity isn’t just another marketing hack—it’s a psychological phenomenon you can use to make more revenue.”
Americans are bombarded by advertising, and much of it is designed to make us want things we don’t really need or didn’t even know we wanted. Imagine the climate impact of doing away with all the things we buy as a result of advertising and how much simpler we could live. Most of us would agree that the best things in life…aren’t things.
In The Covenanted Self, biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann writes, “The reality of drought or low production or famine…produces a sense of scarcity, a deep, fearful, anxious conviction that there is not enough to go around, and that no more will be given. The proper response, given that anxiety, is to keep everything you have…. The myth of scarcity that can drive the economy is not based on economic analysis, but on anxiety.”
Anxiety is rooted in fear, and yet at our core, we know that “even when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we fear no danger because you are with us.” How many times in the biblical narratives do we hear the command, “Fear not!”? And yet, too often we do give into fear and allow it to drive our decision-making. It doesn’t have to be that way, but it requires intention and attention to see the world differently: as a world provided with plenty rather than scarcity.
God has provided abundantly, but it is how we respond and share God’s abundance that makes the difference in peoples’ lives. Brueggeman writes, “I propose that the lyric of abundance that is evoked by the generosity of the Creator, sits deeply against the myth of scarcity. The lyric of abundance asserts that because the world is held in the hand of the generative, generous God, scarcity is not true. I mean this not as a pious, religious sentiment, but as a claim about the economy.”
How do you sense that in your own life? Is your cup overflowing with God’s abundance? I have a hunch that many of us don’t slow down enough to consider that question deeply. Where is your cup so full that it spills over?
When we were visiting my son, Cameron, in Japan before the pandemic, I was surprised at the method of pouring sake for a guest. As a deep gesture of hospitality, someone else always pours the sake into your glass for you. And while there are all kinds of sake cups, the one I saw most frequently in Japan was a set that contained a glass and a small wooden box, called a masu.
Now, you may wonder what this has to do with the 23rd Psalm and abundance. When a host is pouring sake into your glass, she or he pours it to overflowing, so that it exceeds the capacity of the glass and spills into the masu. This is a gesture of abundance, and the first time I saw it, I couldn’t help but say, “My cup overflows!” Literally!
Abundance in God’s world is never a question of there being enough, but rather a question of distribution, so that all have the basic needs met. Some of us have too much and others have too little. How we balance that out is a question of good stewardship: how we live with and share God’s abundance.
Even within the life of our congregation, we work this way. Rather than charging a membership fee or dues, we ask one another to do our best to live and give faithfully in response to God’s gift of abundance. If we did have dues at Plymouth, they would be about $4,100 a year per family. That may surprise you, but it takes a lot to do mission, keep the lights and air conditioning on, plan and gather for worship, provide pastoral care, build community, be a voice in public square, and educate our children and teens and adults. Because not all of us can afford that amount, those among us who can give more must do so to support the community.
How has God filled your cup to overflowing? Stop for a moment and think about how God has shown up abundantly in your life and in the life of our congregation. Most of us have enough to eat, a place to sleep, available healthcare, a career or retirement. Most of us have enough and then some. [pause] And now I invite you to silently offer thanks to God for whatever abundance has been made available to you.
And in the spirit of continuing your meditation, I’d like to share a short film with you from Brother David Steindl-Rast, an elderly Austrian Trappist monk who has a profound relationship with gratitude. https://vimeo.com/223300973
May you continue to see your cup neither as half-full or half-empty, but as overflowing with God’s abundance. And as Brother David says, “May your gratefulness overflow into blessing all around you.” Amen.
© 2023 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact email@example.com for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
 Not a real drug name
Grief & Change & Joy
Jeremiah 4.23-28a & Psalm 31.1-5,9-10,14b-15a
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
The images in our scripture texts today echo the inner landscape of grief as I have experienced and while everyone’s experience of grief is different, I’m guessing that some of these images may resonate with you. The sorrow, despair, and anger, the need for solace and help that grief brings are held in these texts. This day in September, 9/11, has held cries and echoes of grief in our nation for 21 years. Each year we remember when terrorist extremists attacked the World Trade Center in New York City, the Pentagon in Washington, DC and attempted to attack our nation’s capital. We have each experienced many kinds of grief since then or before then. and acutely so in the last two and a half years. New grief brings up old grief. Grief is more a part of the landscape of our lives than we want to acknowledge, and it has always been so for human being. Listen with me to these ancient words of scripture from a prophet grieving for his nation, Israel. And from a poet, a song-writer, singing a grieving prayer for protection from the sorrows of the world.
23I looked at the earth, and it was without shape or form; at the heavens and there was no light. 24I looked at the mountains and they were quaking; all the hills were rocking back and forth. 25I looked and there was no one left; every bird in the sky had taken flight. 26I looked and the fertile land was a desert; all its towns were in ruins before the [Holy ONE], before [the] fury. 27The [Holy ONE] proclaims: The whole earth will become a desolation, but I will not destroy it completely. 28Therefore, the earth will grieve …
Bible, CEB Common English Bible with Apocrypha - eBook [ePub] (Kindle Locations 29664-29676). Kindle Edition.
I take refuge in you, LORD. Please never let me be put to shame. Rescue me by your righteousness! 2Listen closely to me! Deliver me quickly; be a rock that protects me; be a strong fortress that saves me! 3You are definitely my rock and my fortress. Guide me and lead me for the sake of your good name! 4Get me out of this net that's been set for me because you are my protective fortress. 5I entrust my spirit into your hands; you, [Holy ONE], God of faithfulness-- you have saved me. … 9Have mercy on me, [Holy God], because I'm depressed. My vision fails because of my grief, as do my spirit and my body. 10My life is consumed with sadness; my years are consumed with groaning. Strength fails me because of my suffering; my bones dry up. … 14… [Yet]I trust you, [GOD]! I affirm, "You are my God." 15My future is in your hands. …
Bible, CEB Common English Bible with Apocrypha - eBook [ePub] (Kindle Locations 20310-20340). Kindle Edition.
It came as a shock to me at the age of twenty-four that grief would be a part of my whole life. I guess I thought that grief was something you could avoid if you worked hard at having a happy ever after and worked hard at being a good person, a good Christian. But at twenty-four, I learned that, indeed, bad things happen to good people when my youngest sister died in a car accident at the age of sixteen. Not her fault or the fault of the teenage driver who was her friend. Someone else’s mistake. Still, it happened and could not be undone. Big grief, in my face.
We all come to a reckoning with individual grief at some point in life – through a death, an illness, a job loss, a relationship loss. If we are lucky, we first learn as children surrounded by loving companions, parents, family to grieve through the loss of a pet. This teaches us in a very real but gentler situation the ways of sorrow and how to mourn, how to externalize the pain in our hearts through ritual and words. Beyond our individual griefs are our experiences, like today, 9/11, of communal grief. You can probably each name your first realization of communal grief. My first was as a second grader on the playground in Fort Worth, Texas, when the announcement came that the president, John F. Kennedy, had been shot and killed in our neighboring city, Dallas. Our children and youth today have witnessed with us too many of these communal/national/worldwide events of grief in the last several years.
Grief is a part of life. Sorrow is a part of life. Do any of us like this? No. Our culture considers grief to be the enemy of joy in our lives. How can anything be right, be okay, be normal when we are grieving? The pain is too great. It hurts too much. So, if you are anything like me, perhaps, you sometimes try to deny the grief, compartmentalize it, to move through it. You push it aside to find meaning in your work or in helping other people, or in your family, your hobbies. We can focus on anything, even to the point of addiction, to avoid grief - work, entertainment, volunteering, exercise, relationships, substances from coffee to sugar, to alcohol. Anything to not feel the pain. So that we can make it through another day. We may run from grief, but we cannot hide because we hold grief in our bodies no matter how hard we try to ignore it. And grief comes with every change in life, every change. Even good change.
The prophet, Jeremiah, whom scholars call the “weeping prophet,” lamented all the changes coming to the people of Israel, with their idolatrous ways, as Jerusalem was invaded, and temple torn down. His world was drastically changed…we might being feeling the same as we grieve with the people of Ukraine and as we come to grips with climate change. “The mountains are quaking; all the hills were rocking back and forth. … there is no one left; every bird in the sky had taken flight. …the fertile land is a desert; all its towns were in ruins…the earth is grieving.” The psalmist cries out for us, “Holy ONE, listen closely to me! …. Guide me. … I entrust my spirit into your hands… My vision fails because of my grief, as do my spirit and my body. [Yet]I trust you! … My future is in your hands. …” The psalmist’s Hebrew name for God in this song is,” el emet, the God who can be relied on and believed in, trusted in.”[i] When I feel my deepest moments of grief, I cling to trust in this same God, trusting that she will continue to be who she has steadfastly been revealed to be through the changes of millennia.
Change is always with us. Grief at some level is always with us. What are we to do but soldier on, gritting our teeth? I have felt this way….have you? So much so that I was surprised to read an essay by social activist leader, Malkia Devich-Cyril, former executive director of MediaJustice, inviting me to befriend grief. What if grief is not the enemy? What if we can learn about change and joy in the very middle of grief? This is what Malkia learned about the death of her mother from sickle cell anemia and the death of her wife from cancer, both at ages way too young.[ii]
Prompted by the experience and work of Malkia Devich-Cyril and adrienne maree brown, her colleague and friend, I am learning that grief is holy and necessary for real change. “To have a movement that breathes,” writes Malkia, “you must build a movement with the capacity to grieve.”[iii] These two women of color have been working for and in social change movements for over twenty-five years, so I trust their observations along with the words of the ancient prophet and psalmist. We live in and work with this beloved community of faith, which is also a social change movement. We are the movement of the kingdom, the kin-dom of God. Jesus, our movement leader, knew that grief was a skill for change. He wept at the death of this friend, Lazarus. He wept over Jerusalem, the City of God, that struggled with oppression, with greed, with poverty. Jesus knew that grief is holy. Grief is a friend of God. And grief can be our friend, if we allow it to move through our bodies, teaching us to embrace change, to love and serve with more compassion, to see each other and the earth as God’s beloveds.
To begin, we remember that grief is non-linear. It is a time-traveling emotion that appears again and again in our lives in new and old forms, for new and old reasons. It is iterative and repetitive. It spirals through life even when things are going great, even when we are rejoicing, even in our joy.[iv] Joy is not the opposite of grief. It is a beloved sibling of grief. The opposite of grief is indifference. If we truly do not care, we will not grieve. Grief is a profound out-pouring of love and in love there this always joy, even if it is sitting right next to grief.
If understanding grief is a skill for understanding life, for understanding change, for understanding more about faith, what do we need to know?
This is what we learn when we befriend our grief. We learn that If you don’t really care about something, if you are indifferent to it, you don’t grieve when you lose it. So, I suggest to all of you in this room that because you have chosen to come to worship in a faith community, to be in community, if only for an hour, that you are not indifferent to Life. You love Life. You are working to love yourself in God’s image and to love others. You are not indifferent. And so, you are most likely bringing your grief here with you, large or small, personal and/or communal. And you are bringing your greatest joys which may be closely bound to your grief. A community of faith is a safe place to become grounded in our grief. This is a place where we learn with others to grieve, to lament, to rejoice and to give thanks. I’m glad you are here today.
That was a lot of information about a subject that we don’t like to talk about – grief. Take a moment and let whatever you need to hear, sink in. As the psalmist reminds us, this is a place of refuge in the presence of the Holy and one another. Remember that you are breathing. (pause)
After the service today, as a way of continuing this service and grieving together, you are invited to make a prayer flag and place it on our tree there in the yard. You will find the flags or streamers and markers in the Fellowship Hall. Write your grief, your prayer, your lament, your joy on the flag and place it on the tree. This is an act of mourning that can take the grief you feel and move it through your body. It can be an act of memory and thanksgiving that we do together on this day that we remember grief.
Let’s pray together: Holy ONE, you are with us before we call your name. Teach us to grieve so that we can in turn give and receive your love. Teach us to befriend the grief of life’s changes that we may be agents of your change for justice and love in our world. Amen.
[i] James L. May, Psalms, INTERPRETATION, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, (John Knox Press, Louisville, KY: 1994, 143).
[ii] Malkia Devich-Cyril, “To Give Your Hands to Freedom, First Give Them to Grief,” ed. adrienne maree brown, Holding Change, The Way of Emergent Strategy Facilitation and Mediation, (AK Press, Chico, CA: 2021, 64-79).
[iii] Ibid., 79.
[iv] adrienne maree brown, Emergent Strategy, Shaping Change, Changing Worlds, (AK Press, Chico, CA: 2017, 105-107).
[v] Devich-Cyril, 78.
[vi] Ibid., 75-78.
[vii] Ibid., 78.
Liberation into Life
A post- Pentecost sermon related to Psalm 146:5-9
The person whose help is the God of Jacob--
the person whose hope rests on the Lord their God--
is truly happy!
6 God: the maker of heaven and earth,
the sea, and all that is in them,
God: who is faithful forever,
7 who gives justice to people who are oppressed,
who gives bread to people who are starving!
The Lord: who frees prisoners.
8 The Lord: who makes the blind see.
The Lord: who straightens up those who are bent low.
The Lord: who loves the righteous.
9 The Lord: who protects immigrants,
who helps orphans and widows,
but who makes the way of the wicked twist and turn!
For the Word of God in Scripture
For the Word of God among us
For the Word of God within us
Thanks be to God
Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen is a physician, an elder, and an author known by many for her books Kitchen Table Wisdom and My Grandfather’s Blessings. She shares the story of a story, a story of her grandfather, a Jewish mystic, who told her on her 4th birthday a story of the birthday of the world from the Kabbalah, the ancient Jewish mystic text. As the ancient story goes, there first was only the Divine Presence as the Holy Darkness, the ein sof. Then this Holy Darkness birthed a great ray of light…. But, as she tells it, then there was an accident and the light was shattered and scattered into countless shards which fell into all things and all events, though deeply hidden. Humanity is here to find that light, to lift it up and restore the innate unity and wholeness of the world. This great project of purpose is known in Judaism in Hebrew as tikkun olam, the restoration of the world. Tikkun olam is a collective task in which all humanity is called to participate. Tikkun olam, the restoration of the world. Beautiful.
Woven into the stories of humanity and even into our some of our Scriptures are stories that forget the original and ultimate unity of Life, and therefore the unity of humanity, the unity of Creation, and instead act out a story of separation, an illusion of separation where the unlikeness, the differences, become primary and set the stage for preferences, ranking, and suspicion and put us on the road to de-humanizing or objectifying the other or even ourselves. We forget who we are as a part of a great circle, and what the world is as a whole.
Indeed, there are many expressions of the illusion of separation and several are mentioned in our text for this morning, Psalm 146. Did you hear them mentioned? Oppression, imprisonment, hunger, burden, estrangement.
This is where God and where the activity and invitation of the Divine come in to meet these degraded and life-draining conditions with something else, with the antidote from the consequences of separated living: liberation. Liberation back into freedom and dignity of being a Divine spark of Creation. Liberation into the enlivening connection, blessing, and responsibility of Life’s unity as we serve and honor that of which we are a part. Liberation leads to Life.
Here’s another ancient Jewish story to help us along.
The water started at his ankles, but then he went further in.
Up to his knees……. and then thighs….. and then waist.
Behind him, his people stood watching, curious and anxious. And behind them, close enough to see in the distance, the Pharoah of Egypt and his troops in pressing pursuit.
And here he was, Nachson ben Aminidav, walking into the water. You see he had been told that God would act, that there was a way through, even though there seemed no way. Despite the inspiring victory of his people leaving their slave camps just a while ago, they were a long way from their hoped for Promised Land. And now, faced with the sea in front of them and the pursuing slave masters behind them, the people were trapped, in a tight jam, you might say.
In fact, that is what is implied in Hebrew where the word for Egypt, Mitzrayim, is a sound play with the word meitzarem which means a tight space, narrow straits.
So the people found themselves in a tight jam, with seemingly with no way through. But Moses had said that God would act and the waters would part, yet the waters hadn’t parted, and so Nachson went into the water, faithfully, hopefully. Further in he went, waters rising, ever rising. Past his waist, up to his chest and over his shoulders. But he kept going, right up to his nostrils the waters came. And then, only then, when the waters threatened to cut off his very breath of life did the waters begin to separate, allowing the people to cross and find a way through their tight jam into the spacious liberation on the other side.
This Jewish story from the midrash, the ancient Jewish commentary on the Scriptures, illustrates that acts of initiative that involve risk and discomfort are part of our co-creative task if we are to realize liberation that gives life.
Psychotherapist Estelle Frankel draws on her Jewish heritage in her book Sacred Therapy and sees in the Exodus story a description of the psyche’s journey to liberation. And on that journey, we come to places of particular tightness and narrowness, of seemingly no way through, places of constriction and contraction. And so we, too, like those Hebrews, in order to further the passage of life from bondage and contraction and restriction into freedom and dignity, into love and life will sometimes need to get in up to our nostrils before Spirit’s liberating movement is evident, before the signs of passage or transformation even begin to emerge. Making those steps is a creative act of trust, of faith.
It’s not possible to faithfully engage our tradition and teaching without engaging the great myth of the Exodus story. Foundational for Judaism and for Christianity, it is a deep human story reminding us of the deep longing of life for liberation and the journey that is taken to realize it.
And that liberation in the Scriptural saga is both internal and external. As the old Hasidic saying goes: It was not enough to take the Jews out of Egypt. It was necessary to take Egypt out of the Jews. There is an ongoing internal journey to liberation for all of us.
And, liberation is external. Our tradition and certainly the Divine teaching and witness of Jesus was to alter the situation of suffering that a person was in. Whether through healing an illness or injury, or through bringing someone back into community, or teaching a freeing truth to affect a situation, Jesus liberated people from the external situation they were in, helped to change their external circumstance. So often, the internal and external are linked. In the Jesus stories and in the Exodus saga, those liberating changes came with actions born of faith, born of an internal orientation of trust and vision, a willingness and a kind of courage to step out in faith. So often Jesus would say, "Your faith has made you well."
In the midrash story we just heard, one wonders what was it that led Nachson into the water, all the way up to his nostrils. I might imagine that in him somewhere deep down there was a vision of what liberation might feel and look like, and a desire, a determination, a longing to taste it. My spiritual hunch here is that this comes from the piece of the Divine planted in each of us. Maybe it’s like an image, or a spark, or as the ancient Jewish story says, a shard of Divine light.
In these times, do we still have that vision alive in our hearts? Do we lose our heart of vision, our faithful imagination?
Is it too painful to remember God’s Dream for us all, too easy to be cynical rather than vulnerable to being broken hearted?
Theologian Robert McAfee Brown notes that one of the core elements of liberation theology is hope, the hope that generates the sense of possibility that things can be different, that we are not fated to a forever of injustice and suffering. The poet Wendell Berry’s says “be joyful though you have considered all the facts.”
I think Spirit, when we really tap into her flow, inspires that kind of knowing and joy. I think that kind of faithful inspiration is what is coming through the Psalmist of our Scripture reading today. Psalm 146 begins with praise, high praise that comes from that flow of joy in the vision of liberation; prisoners set free, sight to the blind, food to the hungry, justice for the oppressed, inclusion for those pushed out and forgotten. Ah, what joy that is and will be!
The Psalmist bears witness to the GodMystery whose business is liberation. The Spirit whose enduring presence and movement and love opens up space, makes a way in the midst of tight straits, in the midst of our contraction of disappointment and anxiety, or fear and hard heartedness.
Poet and great elder Maya Angelou said simply that “love liberates.”
She ought to know. Maya was sexually assaulted as a child by a man. When she told, that perpetrator was found dead some days later. Some say her uncles did it. She thought she had killed him by speaking. So she didn’t speak. For six years. And while other children called her dumb and a moron for being mute, her grandmother just kept telling her, “Sister, I don’t care what they say. When you and the Good Lord decide it’s time, you will be a teacher.”
It is the God of Love, the Spirit of Love that comes through people like Maya Angelou’s grandmother, that liberates, that sees hope and possibility, and, like Nachson, the one who entered the sea up to his nostrils, that has the courage to act and to endure in faith. We all have that Divine Spark in us, that place that already knows what liberation is, what our deep Divine unity is. And every time we nurture, magnify, and listen to that place in us and in others and in Creation, we will have the vision and heart and Resurrection faith to walk into the waters of our liberation and our re-union.
Today is a holiday of liberation. It’s June 19th aka Juneteenth. Juneteenth commemorates the occasion of some Africans’, and their descendants’, enslaved in America, learning of their emancipation on a June day in 1865 in Galveston, Texas. Juneteenth was proclaimed a federal holiday in 2021 by President Biden. This designation introduced the Juneteenth holiday to a wider American audience, although the holiday has been celebrated for over 150 years among some African Americans.
Racism is one of the most effective ways to keep us in a story of separation, to keep us from God’s Liberating, life-giving Presence. It’s bad for people of color and for white people. And racism doesn’t have to look like burning crosses and crazy people with guns, though we know all too well it is still violent and lethal for people of color.
Sometimes racism works effectively by simply sidelining and ignoring. I had never heard of Juneteenth until a few years ago because Eurocentric, white culture was so deeply centered in so much of my education and exposure and relationships. Racism also works in subconsciously. Only in retrospect did I realize, in my hometown where there were a number of people of color, even a few in positions of authority, that our town probably would not have stood for any more in leadership and probably expected them to be more perfect. Nobody told me this explicitly, but, somehow I absorbed it. I knew it. This is racism and a form of oppression, holding down, holding back, a form of separating.
There is not enough time this morning to go further in this specific form of painful separation known as racism except to say, my friends, that for most of us there is a lot more wading into the waters of awareness about the subtle and powerful ways that white supremacy continues to live in us and in our community. And, let us be clear, white supremacy is in opposition to the liberating God of Jesus and to the ongoing project of Liberation that God is ever about. I’m happy to be in the ongoing discussion and practice of liberating ourselves from racism and to recommend further resources.
One practice is simply to acknowledge what has not been acknowledged: Today is Juneteenth and to learn about it. And tomorrow is World Refugee Day. Both days are about liberation, aren’t they? Like those enslaved who sought refuge from it, all those seeking refuge whom we call refugees are those in a tight space seeking enough security and enough resources to be liberated for a new life. I am so glad that we as a congregation are joining others in supporting the Jan family who came to Fort Collins from Afghanistan. As mentioned, COVID visited the Jan household this previous week so we will postpone our reception for them until this fall. But our work of serving their lives and liberation continues. May they travel further on the path of liberation.
So this morning, the invitation of faith, the way to being an Easter People, a people of the Holy Spirit, offered is to celebrate the Liberating Spirit of God, the Maker of Heaven and earth, and to firmly hold the Divine vision of liberation and deep unity. And then to act, to follow Nachson right into the waters, up to your nostrils, if necessary, so that Creation and all people might reach the other side, so that we might participate in tikkun olam, the restoration of the world.
On this Juneteenth Day, let us ask ourselves how we might participate in God’s liberating movement and let us pray for the guidance, vision, vulnerability, and strength to do so.
May 8, 2022 – Mother’s Day, 4th Sunday of Easter
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
King James Version
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
3 He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
New Revised Standard Version
1 The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters;
3 he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil,
for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
6 Surely[e] goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.
Common English Bible
1The LORD is my shepherd. I lack nothing.
2He lets me rest in grassy meadows; he leads me to restful waters;
3he keeps me alive. He guides me in proper paths for the sake of his good name.
4Even when I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no danger because you are with me. Your rod and your staff-- they protect me.
5You set a table for me right in front of my enemies.
You bathe my head in oil; my cup is so full it spills over!
6Yes, goodness and faithful love will pursue me all the days of my life,
and I will live in the LORD's house as long as I live.
Psalms for Praying by Nan Merrill
O my Beloved, you are my shepherd, I shall not want;
You bring me to green pastures for rest
and lead me beside still waters renewing my spirit, You restore my soul.
You lead me in the path of goodness to follow Love’s Way.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow and of death, I am not afraid:
For you are ever with me; your rod and your staff they guide me;
They give me strength and comfort.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of all my fears;
you bless me with oil, my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life;
And I shall dwell in the heart of the Beloved forever.
Bobby McFerrin – The 23rd Psalm Lyrics
The Lord is my Shepherd, I have all I need,
She makes me lie down in green meadows,
Beside the still waters, She will lead.
She restores my soul, She rights my wrongs,
She leads me in a path of good things,
And fills my heart with songs.... (click link above for full lyrics)
This beloved psalm, used so often in funeral and memorial service settings, has great power to speak to us in the here and now. It is not a pie-in-the-sky promise of better times, it is not wishful thinking or vain hope or just pretty words. It is rock bottom faith in poetic metaphor. It is what we need to hear this morning as we walk in the valley of life.
Last week I drove to northern NM, the Abiqui area, for my spiritual direction training. Many of you have made that journey down 285 through Fairplay to Alamosa then Antonita and on into New Mexico where you can go east to Taos and west to Abiqui. You will remember that you drive many winding roads through mountain passes and at least three times come into broad, often sunny valleys. Perhaps you have driven similar terrain in other parts of the country. I love the winding roads that climb through mountains even it they can also be a bit stressful. I always catch my breath in delight when I first glimpse a valley. The wide-open spaciousness is awe-inspiring. Often a life-giving river or stream is winding its way through fields of crops or animals grazing. It seems a moment of grace. It is also true that a valley gets dark quicker at night as the sun sets behind mountains or hills. Especially if the valley is narrow rather than several miles wide. Living in a valley is a grace and it has its shadow times. Like life.
We are in a valley of shadow time in our country as we face the deep and extended polarization of conservative versus progressive political and cultural forces. It is scary, sometimes it seems very dark, and it is very uncomfortable. We experienced a deeper dive into the shadow of right verses left this week with the leak of the Supreme Court draft document regarding the next chapter on the historic 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that gave abortion rights to all those born into female bodies. The right to choose how to live in one’s own body if one is a uterus-having person seems to be threatened once again. We are in a waiting game to know the next outcome from our Supreme Court. We know this is not just a blow in some tit for tat political struggle for power between political parties. This is a blow to the rights of very real people many of whom are already marginalized by race, economics, education opportunities and gender or sexual orientation.
Just when we were beginning to get our heads and hearts around the on-going tragedy of the war in Ukraine, just as rhetoric is heating up around the fall midterm elections, we are plunged back into the shadow of shock and outrage over this leaked information. New griefs and fears bring up past griefs and fears, don’t they? We have hardly begun to heal from the shadow of the isolation and the economic instability of the pandemic, its constantly changing healthcare scene, the inevitable loss of so many loved ones in death whether or not from Covid. We have the shadow of losses in our own church through staff changes, worship service changes and some members moving to other faith communities, the effect these changes on our church budget. All of these losses and the myriad personal events in our lives plunge us, individually and collectively, into a valley of shadow.
I list these shadow making events not to have a pity party this morning but to offer the opportunity for individual and collective holy healing. Psalm 23 speaks to us in the shadowy valley of change and loss we are in. Yet its familiarity can obscure its relevance. The psalmist opens with two solid theological statements. “One: The Holy One, the Lord, the Lover and Source of all is my Shepherd.” Two: “I will not want, I lack nothing, I have all need.” These statements and the ensuring poetry that opens them up for exploration invite us into trust of with a capital T. The first statement tells us through metaphor who is the One to trust in the ever-changing landscape of life. The second statement tells us that we can trust we have what we need because Creating and Loving God is our guide through life, our protector, our abundant host.
In Biblical tradition the image of shepherd stands for one who guides, protects, and feeds the flock. In the ancient Near East, this image also had political connotations. It was not uncommon for a king, a sovereign, to be called a shepherd of the people. We remember King David, the shepherd boy called and named by God to be the king of Israel. The famous king, Hammurabi, also claimed the title shepherd on claims on the famous stele where Mesopotamian law code was written. So, the ancient psalmist has spun out the metaphor of the Holy One, the One God of the Hebrews, as a shepherd. A shepherd is a trustworthy guide, leading us in the right paths of life. A shepherd fiercely protects the flock from predators with a rod and a staff as the flock is led through dark valleys. A shepherd provides a place of safe rest and water for the journey. As the psalmist moves from the metaphor of being part of a flock to being human follower of the Shepherding God we hear that an abundant table of feast is set even in the presence of foes. There is anointing with healing, cleansing oil and a cup that overflows.
The biggest contemporary foe that I always think of when I read this psalm is fear. I know that fear is one of my biggest enemies and I am guessing that I am not alone in this. Fear is at the bottom of anger, of hatred, of the struggles for power, even of lashing out at our loved ones. We fear we will not get the love, the agency, the power, the attention we need. We fear we will not have the resources we need to feed our families and help them thrive.
Fear in and of itself is not good or bad. It can be instructive and lifesaving prompting us to run, to move out of destructive habits and wounding relationships. However, if we do not listen to fear, acknowledge it in a healthy manner, it can drive conflict between us individually and collectively. Rampant fear turns into power-hungry arrogance and aggression when it is not acknowledged. If we try to suppress fear or push it out of sight, it becomes destructive. We can act out of fear inappropriately. Caught in the grip of fear, we are fall easily into a scarcity mentality. We will not have enough. We will not have all we need. We will not be able to provide for our families. Scarcity thinking is the enemy of God’s abundance.
But, wait, you say….what about people who really do not have enough food, shelter, financial resources? What about when people have bombs raining down on them? What about the months when I am legitimately worried about paying the bills? When I have to change jobs? When someone I love is ill? When I am ill? When gas costs $4.00 plus a gallon? When I am asked to give to support the church and I don’t know if I can spare anything? What about the collective fear of conflict here in our own Plymouth family? What about the budget we passed on faith in January that seems extravagant because we cannot see – yet – how the year is going to work out? We can’t ignore all of that! Just “pray” it away, can we?
No, we can’t ignore all of that. However, as people of faith we can move with the psalmist in faith, putting all our fears into the loving gaze, the right guidance, the holy abundance and the transforming love of God, the Shepherd. We feel the pain of fear, ours and our siblings around the world, in the presence of God. We listen collectively and individually for guidance into paths that lead us into love and trusting the abundance providing what we need. Maybe not what we thought we needed, but what we truly need. In the Spirit, we pray and act for justice, work for the practical solutions that we are led to, not the ones in which we force things to happen purely on our own volition. We TRUST Love which is the source of creation. Even when the valley of life seems to be all shadow.
Remember, looking out over a valley from the top of mountain just before you start your descent? Sometimes you can see the shadows of the clouds moving across the terrain. You can see sun and shadow. Life is always sun and shadow. We know this in our own lives and in our life together at Plymouth. As we come back together after two years of pandemic fears and isolation, things can be unsettling. Nothing is exactly like it was before. We are doing a great deal of rebuilding in our programming, in our mission outreach, in our worship together, in our staff configurations, in our budgeting concerns. AND we celebrate with such joy seeing one another each week, hearing music sung together, sung by our ever-growing choir. Hearing the sound of children among us. Meeting and greeting new folks who discovered or re-discovered us through online streaming! Inaugurating a new climate justice ministry team. We have a world class scholar, theologian and mystic sharing wisdom with us this week as we welcome John Philip Newell to our community this coming Wednesday. There is a great deal of sun in the midst of all the shadows. Just like the sun coming out after the healing rain this morning. My friends, let us claim the faith of the psalmist. Our Shepherd God is always with us, pursuing us with goodness and loving-kindness throughout all our lives. In light and dark, and the shadows in between. Amen.
©The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson, 2022 and beyond. May be reprinted with permission only.
March 13, 2022 – 2nd Sunday in Lent
Plymouth Congregational, UCC
Fort Collins, CO
Psalm 27 (NRSV); Triumphant Song of Confidence. Of David.
1 The [the Holy ONE], is my light and my salvation;
whom shall I fear?
The [the Holy ONE], is the stronghold, the refuge, of my life;
of whom shall I be afraid?
2 When evildoers assail me
to devour my flesh--
my adversaries and foes--
they shall stumble and fall.
3 Though an army encamp against me,
my heart shall not fear;
though war rise up against me,
yet I will be confident.
4 One thing I asked of [God]
that will I seek after:
to live in the house of [God]
all the days of my life,
to behold the beauty of [God]
and to inquire in [God’s] temple.
5 For [the Holy ONE] will hide me in shelter in the day of trouble;
[God] will conceal me under the cover of [God’s] tent;
[God] will set me high on a rock.
6 Now my head is lifted up
above my enemies all around me,
and I will offer in [God’s] tent
sacrifices with shouts of joy;
I will sing and make melody to [the Holy ONE].
7 Hear, O[God], when I cry aloud,
be gracious to me and answer me!
8 “Come,” my heart says, “seek[God’s]face!”
Your face, [God], do I seek.
9 Do not hide your face from me.
Do not turn your servant away in anger,
you who have been my help.
Do not cast me off, do not forsake me,
O God of my salvation!
10 If my father and mother forsake me,
[God]will take me up.
11 Teach me your way, O [God],
and lead me on a level path
because of my enemies.
12 Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries,
for false witnesses have risen against me,
and they are breathing out violence.
13 I believe that I shall see the goodness of [the Holy ONE]
in the land of the living.
14 Wait for [God];
be strong, and let your heart take courage;
wait for [God]!
Wait. Wait for God. Some of you may have mastered the art of waiting. However, I think that most of us in the 21st century do not like to wait. We want things now or soon after now! We want communication with our loved ones now! Why don’t they text or call back? We want our fast food now! Deliveries from online orders now! We want news now! We look for the shortest line in the grocery store, the closest parking place to the store entrance. We don’t like to wait. If we have to wait…. well, then we look at what’s on our phone to keep us occupied?
Yet the ancient poet of Psalm 27 says to us, “Wait for God.” Especially when you are stressed and in crisis. When enemies, literal and metaphorical, surround you – enemies who are plotting war and bodily harm, enemies who are seeking to wreck your reputation through false scandal, enemy fears that you hold inside undoing your confidence – when you are set upon by any of these enemies, wait for God! The Hebrew word for “wait” here doesn’t mean just passively stand doing nothing. It means actively hope in God! Look for God! Be gathered in by the Holy ONE who is your light and salvation. Seriously! Of whom should you be afraid? God is with you and on your team.
I know – and the psalmist knew – that this waiting for God is easier said than accomplished. I suspect that is why the psalm was written. I know and the psalmist knew that there are long dark days and nights when it seems that God is not present, when we wonder where in the world is this God of light and salvation?! In our own lives, in the lives of those we love, in the lives of the world. I don’t know about you, but I can barely read the news from Ukraine without asking, where is God? I can barely read the news from Texas and Florida of the opposition against and exclusion of our LGBTQ sisters and brothers and children. Where is God? I barely read the news about the urgency of climate change and destruction. Where is God? I sit with those in our congregation who are going through loss, illness, tragedy and hardship. Where is God? I acknowledge my own grief, fear, challenges within my own heart. Where is God?
This week, I read these ancient words over and over in different translations starting with the King James’s Version I first heard in my childhood, moving through the NRSV, the CEB and finally on to Nan Merrill’s wonderful book of contemporary paraphrase, Psalms for Praying. I was asking, “Where is God?” in these very troubled and frightening times of pandemic, war, climate destruction and personal trouble. After a week of impatiently waiting with this psalm, I was found by God who is always patiently waiting for me, for us, for the world, almost as if hiding in plain sight. God is here. When we think we are waiting for God, God is already waiting for us, with open arms.
The literal encompassing energy of the universe, of all creation, is God, is Love. Love’s energy is always here. In fact, it cannot be destroyed. Our warring ways cannot blot it out of existence. Obscure it from our sight, yes. But not destroy it. So, where do I find God waiting? I find God is waiting, in the care that you, my Plymouth sisters and brothers, extend to one another in times of need. I find God waiting in the joy of our children’s faces, in the thoughtful questions they ask. I find God waiting in the courage of the activists among us who speak out against injustice, who welcome refugees and homeless folks into our community. I find God in the late afternoon light landing golden on the bare winter landscape as I walk the dog. I find God in the prayers you offer as well waiting in my own heart as I feebly pray for peace, as I haltingly write sermons, as I wait with scripture I may first not understand or grasp, may in fact even resist because of my fears that it’s wisdom might not be true. Yet as I surrender, even tentatively, to the wisdom I want to embrace, God shows up.
I read a Facebook post this week from a Plymouth member quoting Eat, Pray, Love author, Elizabeth Gilbert. Gilbert wrote, “You are afraid of surrender because you don’t want to lose control. But you never had control; all you had was anxiety.” Wow, that hits home! How often do we worry and worry, not just over small things, but also over the big, important things, yet things over which we have little or no control? Does our worry, our anxiety, bring us closer to God?
Where is God when we realize we do not have ultimate control over what is happening to our loved ones, to our beloved creation, to everyday people like us whose lives are literally being bombed into smithereens, to everyday people like us who are told they are not valid people because they are not made in the image of the definition of human being as “white, straight, middle to upper class, male?” Where is God when we are held in the grip of these very legitimate concerns?
God is waiting for us in our very fears and anxieties and worries as we surrender our false sense of control over them to God. Not surrender our agency for action, because God will call us to action that we can accomplish. But when we surrender the enemies of fear and crippling anxiety to Love, God is waiting for us. For God is the Love that animates the universe, weaving in and out of all situations, events and people. “The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” the poet, Gerard Manly Hopkins, wrote.[i] And I would add the nurture, the compassion, the care of God, especially when we think all is lost and we can’t take anymore.
At those times, we can say with the ancient psalmist, “Hear me, when I cry aloud, and answer me! Do not hide from me. I am waiting for you to gather me in, to give me hope.” And in the rubble of our pain, God is waiting. When we surrender to the yearning for God’s peace and presence, we find God in unexpected ways, through unexpected people and situations.
How I wish I could tell each and every one of you exactly how you will find God waiting! Yet I cannot deprive you of your journey into Love for the wholeness comes in the journeying. How I wish I could banish the pain and suffering of the world! And of course, I don’t have that kind of power or control. None of us do. I can offer you the presence of Psalm 27. As I close today, I offer it to you in words from Nan Merrill’s Psalms for Praying. Hear and pray and let its yearnings wind through the yearnings of your heart.
Love is my light and my salvation,
Whom shall I fear?
Love is the strength of my life,
Of whom shall I be afraid?
When fears assail me,
rising up to accuse me, each one in turn shall be seen in Love’s light.
Though a multitude of demons
rise up within me,
my heart shall not fear.
Thought doubts and guilt do battle,
Yet shall I remain confident. ….
For I hide in Love’s heart
In the day of trouble, as in a tent in the desert,
away from the noise of my fears. …
Hear, O Beloved, when I cry aloud,
Be gracious and answer me!
You have said, “Seek my face.”
My heart responds,
“Your face, my Beloved, do I seek;
Hide not your face from me.”
Do not turn from me,
you who have been my refuge.
Enfold me in your strong arms,
O Blessed One. ….
You, My Beloved, know me and love me.
Teach me to be love, as You are Love;
Lead me through each fear;
Hold my hand as I walk through
Valleys of doubt each day,
That I may know your peace.
I believe that I shall know the Realm of
Heaven, of Love, here on Earth!
Wait for the Beloved, be strong with courage … ;
Yes! Wait for the Love of your heart![ii]
May it be so! Amen.
©The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson, 2022. May be reprinted with permission only.
[ii] Nan C. Merrill, Psalms for Praying, An Invitation to Wholeness, (Continuum Publishing, NY, NY: 1998, 46-48.)
Associate Minister Jane Anne Ferguson is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. Learn more about Jane Anne here.
Please note, the recording froze briefly toward the end of the scripture. Read Psalm 103 here.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
“There is a quiet light that shines in every heart. It draws no attention to itself, though it is always secretly there. It is what illuminates our minds to see beauty, our desire to seek possibility, and our hearts to love life.” These are the opening words of one of my favorite books, in fact I’ve given more copies of this book away than any other. It’s called To Bless the Space Between Us, and it was written by John O’Donohue, a magnificent Irish priest and poet, philosopher and teacher. “It would be infinitely lonely to live in a world without blessing,” he writes. “The word blessing evokes a sense of warmth and protection; it suggests that no life is alone or unreachable. Each life is clothed in raiment of spirit that secretly links it to everything else.”
What is that invisible spark, that quiet light, that resides within us all and that seeks connection with God and with one another? What is that kernel of energy that, like a split atom, generates infinite drive for union with God, self, and other? One of the hymns we sing often at Plymouth contains the line, “I will hold the Christlight for you in the shadow of your fear.” What is that Christlight within us and how do we let it shine and spread from our selves to illumine the life of another?
Positive connection between one soul and another is possible, and the connection can be made through blessing, which builds a bridge of spirit and goodness, health and healing, between one person and another. And it’s something we don’t do as often as we might. When was the last time you offered someone an explicit blessing?
At the end of every service, you receive a benediction, literally a “good word” or well-wishing from the minister. It is the most obvious blessing in our order of worship, and we take it very seriously as conferring spiritual blessing on you. And there are other blessings as well. Every time we celebrate communion, the minister offers a prayer of consecration over the simple elements of communion, setting them aside as holy with a blessing. When we baptize children or adults, we bless them in the name of the triune God. And every week, at least during non-pandemic times, we do two things with the offering: We sing it forward with a Doxology (usually “Praise God from whom all blessings flow!”) and then in the Unison Prayer of Dedication, together we all bless the offerings that have been made. We can bless things as well as people, and that is what we do today, on this Consecration Sunday, as we bless our pledge commitments for 2022.
I learned something new while preparing this sermon: the Old English root of blessing is blêdsian, which means to consecrate with blood. David Steindl-Rast says that “Blessing is the lifeblood throbbing through the universe.” Before you get totally grossed out, think about this from a religious studies point of view. What did most offerings in many religions look like? They were often sacrifices: sometimes grain, sometimes material wealth, sometimes animals. People bought doves outside the Temple in Jerusalem for sacrifice. We still repeat Jesus’ words, “This is the cup of the new covenant in my blood.” We see it as lifeblood, a metaphor for the container or vehicle of vitality and spirit. And when we collect the offering, where do we put the plates after we sing it forward? We put it on the communion table, and if I were an anthropologist, I’d probably conclude that our communion table is an altar and that we are making a sacrifice of our wealth for God.
So, what does consecration and blessing mean for us, who are 21st century followers of Christ? I turn to the 103rd Psalm, our text for today: “Let my whole being bless the Lord. Let everything inside me bless his holy name…and never forget all God’s good deeds.” I appreciate the way the Common English Bible renders that phrase, “Let my whole being bless the Lord,” rather than the more typical “Bless the Lord, O my soul.” Think about that for a moment, how do you let your whole being — body and soul — turn toward God to build a sense of connection that allows gratitude, love, healing, and wholeness to flow in the channel of your blessing? How do you orient your life so that it isn’t just saying a word of blessing on a Sunday or even before a meal, but rather that your actions, thoughts, and deeds become a form of blessing that you offer to God?
When Paul advises us to “pray without ceasing,” he is not asking us to kneel down all day, but rather to orient our lives such that our lives themselves become a blessing, a channel of positive spiritual energy flowing between God, us, and others.
In the Celtic tradition, there is a great tradition of blessing things, people, and occasions. These were often learned by heart and offered in spoken word from one person to another or even while milking a cow or banking a fire at the end of the evening. In a few moments, we’ll offer a Celtic blessing from the Iona Community as we consecrate and bless our pledges for 2022, continuing that ancient tradition with contemporary words.
When we do that, I hope that you’ll think of blessing not of the slips of paper that we put in the basket or the online pledges that you may have made, but think of all the work of our members and friends that those pledges represent. Money is like stored energy that derives from our labor, and we are offering it to support the mission and ministry of this congregation. I am thankful that we recognize that all good gifts come from God and that when we offer them to God in gratitude, they form a tangible blessing that helps extends God’s realm through the activity of this church.
The other wonderful thing about blessing is that it cannot be bound by geographic location or even physical separation caused by a pandemic. A blessing cuts right through the distance!
So, we gather as God’s people, here in the sanctuary or in a hundred living rooms and family rooms of our online worshipers, and we gather to express gratitude with the commitment of our financial resources for 2022. And we gather to bless them, opening a channel of positive energy between the work they represent and the mission and ministry of this congregation.
May the whole being of each person who comprises this congregation bless the Lord, and may God’s blessing be on each of you. Amen.
© 2021 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
 1Thess. 5.16
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.
The Rev. Dr. Ron Patterson
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, CO
A week or two ago while I was weaving, something many of you know I always do when I visit Ft. Collins, I took a lunch break, left my loom bench, and took a seat at the large knitting table at the local yarn store where I spend a lot of my free time. Often there are a dozen or more knitters or crocheters sitting at the table. That day there was only one and this person likes to talk and so as ate my lunch I listened.
They said that I would not be seeing them in the next week or two, because they would be home baking for a large church meeting to be held at the local non-denominational church they attend. I began to listen at that point rather than just politely nod while they talked and I ate.
I could not help myself. I shared with them that all the church meetings I have attended for over a year now have been online, no pastries, no cake, no cookies, not even coffee. In fact, I told them that our entire General Synod, over 3,000 people, met online this summer. Did their church expect many for this meeting? Hundreds, they said; and they planned to be baking for the next two weeks to prepare.
Once again, I could not help myself. Did that mean that those attending would all be vaccinated? And then I realized that I might have overstepped from curious to nosey and so I apologized for asking. But they responded, well, some of them might be wearing masks. And then I went full nosey and said “Are you vaccinated?” and this person smiled and said: “Let’s just say, I’m taken care of.” At that point I silently picked up my lunch, put on my mask and left the room.
I’m led to make a few observations before I get into my sermon this morning to set stage for what I hope to communicate. First, I am not particularly proud of that interaction, and might even suggest that the devil made me do it. However, that would not be fair to the Prince of Darkness, because I over-reacted, perhaps unfairly, all on my own to a couple of things this person said that gripe my heart and fry my spleen.
Calling a church ‘non-denominational’ is often, in my experience, code for conservative, non-inclusive, male-dominated and guilt driven. And often, the participants in these congregations have no idea of what their leaders believe, because they conceal their message in user friendly packages that include tons of catchy music and lots of warm fellowship, unvarnished patriotism and messages designed to make everyone feel good. We have our faults in the United Church of Christ, tons of them, but we don’t try to hide who we are behind an innocent sounding word like ‘non-denominational’. My guess, perhaps incorrect or even judgmental, is that her church has a denomination, they just don’t want you to know about it.
And second, the evasive answer to my way too nosey question might be covering an attitude that does not reflect the unconditional love of Jesus and the call of Jesus for us to love God and love one another. There are good excuses not to be vaccinated, but for the love of God, don’t cover it with some sickeningly sweet varnish that implies that God has you covered in such a way that suggests you bear no responsibility for your neighbors. Wear a mask or take other precautions.
This person said that they are taken care of—and once again, this might be terribly unfair of me, but what they might have meant was that their church peddles anti-vaccination conspiracy theories or that their pastor has told them that if they love Jesus they don’t need a vaccine to be safe or they might even believe that their faith can keep them well. Maybe, but maybe not. I got my shot hoping that it might protect me, but I got the shot because I believe in loving others enough to keep them safe.
Thank God I belong to a church that says upfront that I don’t have to leave my brain at the door to find a faith home or to grow and that this preacher and these pastors don’t try to tell you what you have to think or do, but insist that you join us in prayerful, respectful dialogue with one another and with the best scientific thought available, because I believe that reflects what it means to love God, one another and ourselves.
And I open this sermon with that story which might reveal too much of my rudeness and too little of my compassion or understanding, because I want to talk about who God is and who we are and what I believe we need to be about in this world as followers of Jesus; a world where some of the follows of Jesus seem to be up to something entirely different and dreadfully dangerous that threatens not only our future, but our freedom with a belief system that turns the way of Jesus into a power grab and a tool of repression and a direct rejection point by point of what Jesus said and did. And those are strong words but let me tell you what I mean.
My text this morning is Psalm 8. This is the Psalm that went to the moon on Apollo 11, and this is the Psalm that shows up a few times each year in the lectionary because this Psalm weaves cosmology, anthropology and theology into a powerful tapestry truthfully answering the three questions that I think define human existence, the same three questions that too many religious traditions glibly fib about.
Question one: who are we? The Psalmist says we are just a tad lower than the angels and that you and I stand at the pinnacle of God’s creation. Question two: who’s in charge? A creator who acts in love and calls us to respond to life and to circumstances within and beyond our control with the same love. Question three and this one is a bit tricky: What are we supposed to do with our lives? How are we supposed to respond? How are we supposed to live? Now the faithful answer as Jesus suggested it, is to love God and love our neighbors as we love ourselves.
But there is a tiny problem. The Psalmist throws the word “Dominion” into the mix which seems to suggest that the creator God has given all of us a job description that we might not like, might not really want and might as a collective humanity have messed up royally by misunderstanding what it meant over the last few millennia, especially in the Western European thought world.
Here’s what I mean by that. This Psalm celebrates the reality of the Genesis mandated role of the human being as God’s partner in creation. The theology of our Western Christian tradition suggests an anthropomorphic cosmology, which I know sounds like baloney to those of scientific mind, but that is history and that is why for centuries in places where Christianity dominated, human dominion was too often seen as human control of the earth with tragic consequences for the environment. This view encouraged the idea that humans had the God-given right to control, to subjugate and to dominate the creation. Dig it out, drill it out, develop it, exploit it, burn it, transform it, mass produce it, market it, sell it, throw it out and then start over. Western Christians in one sense crucified the earth without seeming to know or understand what they were doing. And this idea spread empowered by Western colonialism.
But all was not lost, because in so many places and in so many traditions, some of the followers of Jesus and other faiths and often no faith, have begun to take a second look at what dominion over the earth really means, and many of our sisters and brothers, many of us, have repented the old idea of dominion as domination and partnered with the best scientists to understand that human actions, energy policies, agricultural policies and all the rest have consequences short and long term for the health of our planet and the survival of our species. Many of our best leaders in the church and elsewhere are saying that to be a Christian or to be a human, demands that we become environmentalists realizing that the actual witness of the biblical writers insists that the earth and all of creation is our neighbor as fully as the person sitting next to us.
Many years ago, I watched as a minister baptized a baby. As the minister held the little one lovingly, surrounded by the proud parents and grandparents and a supportive congregation. The minister said, “You and I have borrowed the future from this child. In how we treat one another, in how we live our lives, in how we take care of this earth, we make payments on a mortgage we hold on this baby’s future.” That’s how I understand the gift of dominion you and I have been given by God.
Now, let me return to the story of my bad behavior at the knitting table and about what I heard and understood, perhaps incorrectly about my table companion’s response to my nosey question about their vaccination status.
What I heard in their answer was a different understanding of dominion. What I heard, and perhaps projected on to their comment was a set of ideas held by some conservative Christians.
They are known as dominionists—they have taken the gift of dominion or partnership with the Holy One in the sacred task of co-creation and turned that idea into a license to dominate and control not only creation but human destiny.
They believe that it is the destiny of the United States to be dominated by Christians and that biblical law should determine the law of the land. They deny the separation of Church and State. They reject freedom of conscience. They defend their ideas by claiming religious freedom for themselves while at the same time denying it for others who do not share their political beliefs. This is a Christian nation they argue and if you are not a Christian in the same way they are, you should have limited rights or perhaps no rights at all.
One of the strangest sights if you were paying attention to the insurrection on January 6 was the number of Protestant Christian flags and crosses being carried by the rioters that day. Did that surprise you?
It was not a coincidence because dominionist ideas were driving that crowd, ideas that include the notion that certain anointed politicians will hasten the domination of this country by Christians. Sure, January 6 was political, but politics partially driven by religious fanaticism is a terrifying undercurrent revealed that day and since in the actions and attitudes of several prominent politicians, including several sitting senators and members of the house. We need to know that. We need to act as the followers of Jesus who know better.
In one sense, I know that I have gotten a bit carried away by all of this. Our progressive and inclusive stands in the United Church of Christ on so many issues urge us to be God’s tolerant people, accepting of all, inclusive of all. But when one way of looking at the Christian faith slams the door shut on the rest of us or enables conspiracy theories that threaten others or the earth or the poor or people of color or immigrants with ignorance or white supremacy disguised as patriotic piety, then we are called to sing the words of Psalm 8 with renewed devotion.
We are God’s children called co-creators by the divine. We are a little less than the angels, bearing the very image of the Holy One. We are sisters, brothers, siblings of one human family. We are not miserable sinners worthy of hell, saved by the cross alone, rather we are joyful saints invited by Jesus to follow the way of life. We come to a world table today not as strangers but as welcome guests. We remember that our wholeness is guaranteed by the one who was broken because of a love that will never let us go. O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!
From July 12 to October 3, 2021, the Rev. Ron Patterson was 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.
Plymouth Congregational Church
Fort Collins, Colorado
Lection: Psalm 46, "Easter, 1916" (Yeats)
Trying to make sense of something that is senseless is not easy. You already know that I think.
When someone we love dies, when our lives are turned upside down by something the doctor tells us, when the phone rings in the middle of the night or when a relationship breaks apart, we are left stunned and at a loss for words.
That’s how I feel when I think about 9/11 and about much that has happened in our world and in this country since 9/11. It’s been twenty years, but for me it seems like yesterday.
As a few of you know, Charnley and I were living in New York City on September 11, 2001. She was working for Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Research Hospital in Human Resources, and I was on the staff of Marble Collegiate Church on 5th Avenue. That day was election day and we voted at P.S. 116 on our block and left one another on the corner of 33rd Street and 3rd Avenue at around 9:00 a.m. She headed north to her office, and I headed cross town to the church at 5th Avenue and 29th Street. What neither of us knew at that moment, was that an airplane had struck the North Tower of the World Trade Center at 8:46 a.m. and that another plane had flown into the South Tower at 9:03 a.m. When I reached Park Avenue South and 32nd Street, people were looking downtown at a large cloud of smoke. A man with a cell phone said that he thought a small sightseeing plane had hit the World Trade Center.
By the time I reached my office, traffic was beginning to stop, and the street was full of people pointing and crying. We hooked up a T.V in the lobby of our office building and for a time just wandered around in shock. I walked over to Sixth Avenue where you could look downtown directly at the Twin Towers. I was there when the South Tower fell, but it was hard to tell what was happening because of the smoke. When word rippled through the crowd, people reacted with shock and anger and tears. People hugged total strangers.
Meanwhile, Charnley’s office closed, and she went back to our apartment with a consultant who had just arrived in the city by train and a young girl from her staff who lived outside of the city and was terrified and had nowhere to go. They turned on the T.V. and heard that blood was needed at the hospital two blocks from our apartment, so they headed over there to give blood. After a short time standing on line, they were turned away because the hospital had figured out by that point that they were probably not going to need blood. Outside of the Emergency room on the street, dozens of doctors and nurses stood waiting with wheelchairs and stretchers for the injured who never came. One of the saddest truths of that day was that almost no one made it to the hospital. People either escaped or they died.
By the time the north tower collapsed, we had organized ourselves at the church to do what we could. We began to list the people we knew might be working in the Twin Towers. We opened the Fifth Avenue doors, we set up land-line phones that people could use, we put together a prayer service for noon and set up a table to give people water. We put on our robes and stood outside in the crowd milling around on the street just talking to people.
The next eight hours are a blur and the next few days are a bigger blur, but by noon, people covered with dust from the building’s collapse began straggling up Fifth Avenue walking home. Many of them stopped to talk. Many of them went into the church just to rest and pray or use the facilities or to make a phone call since nobody’s cell phone was working at that point. And that’s what we did for the next several days, we listened, we tried to give comfort, we worshipped—we rang the bell and the sanctuary would fill beyond capacity with people anxious to sing together and pray, and we stood on the street just talking to people who needed to talk.
Looking back from the perspective of twenty years I want to share a few observations. In the limited time I have, I can only scratch the surface, so these remarks come with an invitation for further conversation with any of you.
Observation one: the human spirit is amazing and when evil runs into the human spirit—which is exactly what the people who hijacked those planes were up to, the human spirit may flounder for a time, but the human spirit comes through because the human spirit is really one with the Divine Spirit. That’s how I understand the fire fighters and other first responders who ran into those buildings. That’s how I make some sense of what happened that day and that’s how I understand and deeply appreciate the scientists and the first responders and all the medical people attempting to help during this time of Pandemic. When we trust one another and the facts, we are all capable of a lot more than we think.
Observation two, when something bad happens, the worst part is the fear. I spent the first few hours after the attack working in the shadow of the Empire State Building. I found myself glancing up afraid that I might catch sight of another plane. Rumors abounded. A mosque in our neighborhood was excavating a basement, were they really planting bombs? Don’t ride the subways, there is an attack scheduled for Friday on the trains. Some of the same conspiracy theories born then are still festering in the dank ignorance that empowers the science deniers and fear mongers today.
One of the biggest challenges in this life is to live by faith and not by fear and that is a decision we are called to make every single day of our lives. Fear is real and worry is fear’s best friend but living by fear is not living—living by faith is living. So many angel messengers appeared that day and in the following days with that message, that I became convinced that the Holy One was speaking.
Observation three, it's OK to be angry—in fact when something like that happens, it is downright healthy to react with anger. There was plenty of anger, but since anger is what flew those planes and killed all those people to begin with, the anger we were feeling in response to the attack needed to become a pathway to healing and not an excuse to join the people who live their lives angry. Whole groups of people in this nation are living that way and that is tragic. Anger is either a dead end with the emphasis on the word ‘dead’ or a passage to the positive. Dare I suggest that being angry enough to do something loving is the way of Jesus?
Observation four, and this relates to the one about anger: there is no future in revenge. I suggested a few days after 9/11 that we offer to send every young person in the Arab world to Harvard rather than seek revenge for what happened. That sounds crazy I know, but it’s hard for me to see what we as a nation achieved with our twenty-year wars that thank God might be ending. One recent study (Watson Institute, Brown University) revealed that these wars have cost $6.4 trillion dollars—a number beyond comprehension, but in simple terms around $20,000 for each person in this nation. And that is not counting the 800,000 human beings lost in the process, including so many of our beloved young people whose service and sacrifice is beyond measuring. I am not a foreign policy expert, and I am not a politician, but I do follow the Jesus who talked about the futility of revenge.
Observation five, bad religion leads to bad politics and crazies are crazies no matter which religion they practice. When human beings confuse their ideas about God and what they believe God might want them to do, with God or when human beings justify what they want to do anyway by appealing to their understanding of religion, you can almost guarantee that the religion being practiced has very little to do with the transcendent reality that is glimpsed from time to time on the far side of our human experience.
God is not what is in the book whether that book is the Bible or the Quran or Vedic scripture. God is love and where love abides God resides, God is forgiveness, and when we forgive and find a way to give, God is hovering near. God is present when humans embrace one another across borders and find ways to break down walls that separate or differentiate based on race, ethnicity, or orientation.
If pride or patriotism drives love out the door and creates enemies to enhance identity or to preserve privilege, then the amazing ability of the human ego to justify its behavior takes over and people are bound to get hurt and God will once again be found weeping on a pile of smoking rubble left behind by the next act of human idiocy or idolatry.
Observation six, when you find yourself caught up in something overwhelming, do something human and whatever you do it will multiply. Two stories. Shortly after we got started talking to people on the street, a member of the congregation in her late eighties showed up to help. She just showed up. The water table was her idea. We did that every year in June for the Fifth Avenue Pride Parade, because that’s what Jesus said to do with thirsty people. And so following her lead we began offering ice water on that hot day and pretty soon, people trudging up Fifth Avenue covered with ash from the falling buildings and many people who needed to be with others joined in to help. Total strangers were helping her hand out water. It wasn’t heroic, it was tiny compared to what others were doing at Ground Zero, but it was the love of Jesus. That’s one story and here’s another.
Most of us on the staff of the church and many of our members were customers at a tiny drug store on 29th Street just off Madison. The pharmacist was a devout Moslem. At our first staff meeting after the disaster, one of the administrative assistants brought up our pharmacist and ask for prayers of understanding in our community. She then decided that it would be her mission to stop by his store everyday to assure him of her friendship. Many of us joined her. It wasn’t dramatic, it wasn’t heroic—it was just the love of Jesus.
In the next few days, leading up to the 20th Anniversary of 9/11 on Saturday, I hope you will take some time to remember the people who lost their lives on 9/11 and the people who have died since because of the hate that burned on that day. May our mourning and our remembering bring meaning to our living and to our loving. That’s the way of Jesus. Amen.
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.