Rev. Dr. Ronald Patterson
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, CO
I Kings 8:1,6,10-11, 22-30, 41-43
Several weeks ago, on my first Sunday with you, I had one of those moments. I had the sense that I was suddenly in what the saints call a thin place. That Sunday was the first time I had been in a meeting house for worship in over a year. It moved me to tears because I had not realized how desperately needed and deeply missed communal worship had been. To sing my faith with others, to listen to a group of people who are happy to see one another, to hear the words of the Bible in a community on a shared journey had been absent from my life since a year ago March. It was understandable and necessary, and zoom and live stream were soul savers, but it just was not the same. Zoom is sort of like eating an ear of sweet corn or a half-ripe tomato shipped up from Florida in January.
And I have heard similar thoughts expressed by others around the country as congregations bolstered by the vaccinated; gather, as those who understand that loving Jesus, means loving your neighbor enough to be vaccinated, or to wear a mask, as they too begin taking baby steps toward gradual reopening.
We aren’t there yet. We are still taking precautions, listening to experts, and attempting to use the best information available. Given the Delta variant, this whole business is not easy. We are not out of the woods yet. But as people of faith, we know that we are on a journey and as St. John Lennon said, “Everything will be okay in the end, and if it’s not okay it’s not the end."
This congregation has wisely prepared for this gradual reopening, and I am really impressed that your leaders have embraced possibility with the new lighting on the way and the new cameras so that what we do here can be multiplied through media to enlarge our faith family and leave no one behind. We don’t know what might come next, but what you have done makes what might be less challenging. So let me say: “Thank you!”
Let’s start with a question: Do any of you collect things? Stamps? Beer cans? Barbie dolls? I collect church buildings and other places of worship. When we travel, I visit churches. I visit old churches, unusual churches, historic churches, and new churches. I visit great cathedrals or adobe mission buildings or churches with the simple colonial lines of a New England meeting house. And for some reason, I usually remember any church I visit or even pass by and often, when I am driving, I navigate by churches—once I’ve seen a particular church building, I just don’t forget it.
Over the years, a few of the people I have traveled with, including my beloved, have grown tired of this fixation. I tour an old city from steeple to steeple. Years ago, traveling with four college friends touring Rome from church to church to church, they figured out what I was up to and the whole group rebelled and took my map away. They had had enough while I was just getting started. On another trip I learned that the great gothic cathedral in Cologne, Germany is surrounded by a dozen large Romanesque Churches, and I became obsessed with visiting all twelve.
If I had a bumper sticker on my backside it might say: “Edifice Obsessed” or “This Vehicle Stops at All Houses of Worship.” Now before you think that this is a sermon about my personal neurosis, let’s engage the text.
Today we heard another piece written by the anonymous Hebrew storyteller who’s book we name I Kings. We heard the story of the dedication of the first fixed non-movable worship space in our religious tradition—the Temple in Jerusalem built by King Solomon. And it is an interesting story, full of things to consider.
Let me point out a few. According to this story, the priests cook up a grand celebration for the dedication of the temple. They bring the Ark of the Covenant into the Holy of Holies in the new Temple—and according to their tradition God is present in the Ark of the Covenant. But at the very moment in this big celebration when they manage to localize God, just when they imagine that they have tamed God so that they will know where to find God and where to come to seek the presence of God, God makes a U-turn. God fills the temple with a cloud and drives the priests right out of the temple.
In other words, God says: look, I don’t care how wonderful your building is, I don’t care how much time it took you to build it, I don’t care how magnificent it is, I am more wonderful still and I am not contained within any shrine you might build for me no matter how beautiful that shrine might be.
Lesson one: like Solomon’s temple, this place is a house dedicated to God, but God does not live here. God is here when we are here. And God travels from this place to wherever our journey might lead us. God is the one who walks the lonesome valley and takes us by the hand when the shadow of death comes calling.
God is here when we are here, because you and I bear the image of God and Jesus said that when ever two or three of us gather in one place (whether on zoom or through the live stream which some of you are watching), God is there with us and we are not alone.
This place is holy not because it is beautiful, it is holy because you and I are holy—the very children of God’s love and holy is as holy does—and being holy as God is holy is about loving others and making sure all God’s children have enough to eat and a warm, safe place to live.
I think that most people would agree that this space is pleasing to the eye—the first time I visited here many years ago, I found this place beautiful in its simplicity—but its true beauty is the beauty of a community of people seeking to follow the way of Jesus who just happen to meet here. For example, God showed up here a week ago Saturday to meet some of you in the form of kitchen towels and kitchen gadgets and volunteers and students from around the world and that’s a fact—that was a genuine God sighting!
I sometimes come into this space during the week alone and I love to do that—but I must remind myself that the thing which makes this a sanctuary—a holy place—is the gathered presence of the people of God whether they are physically here or present on the other side of that camera.
It is beautiful because here we find the strength to go out into this community and into the wider world and find ways to let the Christ light shine. It is beautiful because we discover ways while we’re connected here to be neighbor to one another and to hold one another’s hands when the going gets rough. It is beautiful because in our gathering in person (or virtually), we are reminded that the true holy places are wherever we lift up our eyes to see the goodness and the beauty all around us in this world and beyond this world in the mystery of a universe still unfolding. Beauty is as beauty does, goodness is as goodness does.
Lesson two, when God filled the temple with a cloud, it was a warning about idols—don’t worship idols—you know that, don’t localize God and whatever you do, don’t make some image of God and bow down before it. This is just basic Christianity 101, Judaism 101, and Islam 101. Moses said it, Jesus said it, Mohamed said it!
Don’t ever get caught creating God in your own image or hemming God in with ideas that are too small or too local or that look too much like the backside of your own fears about the future. Don’t be seduced by conspiracy theories that are idols dressed up in ego-driven pseudoscientific costume. In my mind, that’s just the latest manifestation of the same old sin and there’s lots of it going around.
I have noticed that some people seem to believe that God is a conservative Republican. Others imagine that God is a liberal Democrat. I have noticed as well that some folks confuse their politics or their way of life or their contrary attitude with the will of God and call it freedom and that others are convinced that “God Bless America,” means that the rest of the rest of the nation and world with other ideas can just take a long walk off a short pier. That’s idolatry.
This text is a cautionary tale about religion or attitudes that create God in your image or mine because that is much more comfortable and comforting than the awesome deity who will not be built into a box or contained in my feeble brain or yours.
This temple text teaches that opinions and behavior that are too small, too narrow, too certain, are the dirty dishwater approximation of the Holy that filled the Temple and taught through the voice of Jesus. This story is a reminder that when we are certain about where God is located, when we’re ready to confine God to one type of building or hang the deity as a graven image above one altar dedicated to a particular way of life or thought system, God moves. God moves inviting us to expand our understanding of the mystery of God’s love. Simply stated wherever love abides, God resides, and love knows no borders and God’s love is bigger than anybody’s politics or palaver.
Lesson three, when it comes to God—when it comes to knowing God and following the way of Jesus, it is never about a place, it is about a relationship—our relationship with God, God’s relationship with us and our relationship with our neighbors and a place that makes relationships happen is a holy place. That is why we do what we do as a congregation.
Do you remember what Jesus said when he was asked what we needed to do to become the inheritors of eternal life? He said that we are to love God with our whole heart, with our entire soul and with the totality of our mind and find a way to love one another with the same depth with which we have been loved. Solomon calls it steadfast love: the love that will never let us go; the love that will never abandon either us or this beautiful world. The apostle Paul calls it grace: the unconditional acceptance of each of us no matter how unacceptable we might believe ourselves to be.
And so, here we are in this place, this place of beauty. And it is good, it is very good, but like that temple long ago—this beautiful place is not a destination. This place is a way station on the path that leads to life. Here we find renewal; here we are reminded of God’s love and mercy, here we can be recharged for the life journey, here we can meet a neighbor we need to love. Here we can work together, to accomplish great things, but here is not the destination. The journey is whatever comes next. Amen.
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.
1 Corinthians 12.12-31
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
Did you hear the one that goes, “Why is the church like Noah’s Ark?” … “Because the stench inside would be intolerable if it weren’t for the storm raging outside.” Or “How many Congregationalists does it take to change a lightbulb?” … “What do you mean change?!” How about the classic one-liner: “Jesus promised us the Kingdom of God, but all we got was the church!”
The past 50 years have not been easy ones for religious institutions. Some of it is our own doing, and some of it isn’t. We all know about “mainline decline” and the rise of people who have no religious affiliation. And we all know that churches have been complicit in protecting pedophile priests, financial malfeasance and greed by televangelists, and political power grabs by the religious right. And those wrongs need to be addressed.
Those stories dominate the news, and if you don’t know anything else of the church, you’re likely to have a rather dim view of what it means to be the church in America today. That catalog of tragedies has caused countless people to say they’ve had enough of the church and decide to chuck it all. I was there, too, when I was 18, having witnessed a bitter factional struggle in the church of my youth and when televangelists shouted and wailed across the airwaves. To my teenage eyes, which tended to see things only in monochromatic black-and-white images, my perception was that the church was broken. Who needs the church?!? So, I left for about 10 years…and eventually I returned through the back door of the Unitarian Church in Santa Barbara, when I realized that I needed a community where I could nurture and explore my spiritual life. I needed the church.
I know my story is not unique…but I did have a family background that provided me with something to come back to. Yet, a large segment of young Americans today has never stepped foot into a church, mosque, or synagogue, because their families were never involved in the first place. When they are in their 20s or 30s and feel a pull toward spiritual community, they have no home to return to.
I was born at the end of the Baby Boom, and one of the hallmarks of my generation, especially older Boomers who remember the Vietnam War, the shootings at Kent State, and Watergate, was to “do your own thing.” In the 1960s and 70s, every institution was distrusted, including the church. And it is true that the church in this country has been a bastion of sexism, homophobia, classism, and racism. And if your local church was just a social club or a place to be civically involved like the Elks Club, then it was part of the establishment that the Boomers abandoned. Lots of people left in disgust, saying “Who needs the church!?”
So, that’s the bad news folks.
Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that “There are always two parties, the party of the Past and the party of the Future, the Establishment and the Movement.” And here is something that very few people in America realize: from the days of Jesus himself, the church can only function well as the Movement and not the Establishment.
Some suggest that the church got corrupted when the Emperor Constantine adopted the faith and made it the official state religion of the Empire, and that may be so. But think about our own church’s Congregational history: separating from the established Church of England, rallying for the abolition of slavery, ordaining a woman in the 1850s, expounding the Social Gospel in the late 19th century, supporting Civil Rights in the 1950s and 60s, and working in the courts, legislatures and the in the church itself for the full inclusion of LGBTQ folks. That’s what the Movement looks like, and for many of us, that is a big part of what it means to be the United Church of Christ today. Years ago, one of our lay leaders, Larry McCulloch, was talking about why he was giving to the capital campaign that renovated and expanded our building, and he said that part of the reason was that the church, unlike any other organization, has been a potent force for social change for over 2,000 years, and that he wanted to invest in our future. Staying power is the upside of institutions.
Social change is central to what we do in the UCC: it’s in our denominational DNA. But we are more than the League of Women Voters, the NAACP, GLAAD, or the ACLU, though we sometimes partner with them. There is a different dimension to who we are and what we’re about.
We in the UCC, especially in the Congregation tradition, tend to have a “low” sense of ecclesiology — the theology of the nature of the church. Some of us here today may not see Plymouth as all that different than the organizations that I just named, and perhaps you see us essentially as a community organization that meets once a week…but with good music. Others of us know that there is more to the story, more to the nature of who we are, and more to explore as our spiritual lives unfold individually and together as a body.
Early Congregationalists in England refused to identify with the church under the monarchy or even as a denomination. For them, the true church was a gathered body of people in one local place, called together to seek God and God’s intention for our lives. The Salem Church Covenant of 1629 spells it out: ‘We Covenant with the Lord and one with another; and do bind our selves in the presence of God, to walk together in all his waies, according as he is pleased to reveale himselfe unto us in his Blessed word of truth.” And when new members join Plymouth, as they (will do/did) today, we still exchange words of covenant with each other. Your name doesn’t go on a national list at the UCC offices in Cleveland…you are a member of Plymouth Congregational UCC, the local church. Your clergy are not members of the denomination, a presbytery, an annual conference, or a diocese…we are members of this local church.
Our forebears didn’t believe in great hierarchies or bishops or popes or monarchs, but rather in people and pastors, who together try to seek God’s ways and live accordingly. And that is a radical notion of being the Movement, not the Establishment. And today, we also see ourselves as connected ecumenically to sisters and brothers around the world.
And there is a more mystical aspect as well, in what it means to be the church. The roots of Greek word for church, ekklesia, from which we get our word ecclesiastical, mean called out. We are called out of our private lives to form community. We are called out of our comfort to have compassion for those who are hurting. We are called out of our individual needs to serve the needs of others. We are called out of our radical individualism and self-interest to be part of something greater. We are called out of our aloneness to be the body of Christ in the world.
The gathered body — that is what it means for us to be church.
When Paul was writing to those who had been called out and then called together in Corinth, he was doing so before any of our four gospels had been written, probably about 15 years before the earliest, the Gospel of Mark. So, this is early material…perhaps from 20 years after Jesus’ death. People did not yet know what it meant to be the church, so Paul uses this amazing metaphor of parts of the body, which are organically connected. “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” We aren’t just a collection of individuals…we are an organic, even a mystical, whole. And through baptism and covenant, we individuals become part of that organism. We become part of the Movement: the same Movement that Jesus started 2,000 years ago.
“Now, you are the body of Christ, and individually members of it.” Those are powerful words, but only if you let them sink into your being…past your mind, past your emotions, into your body and the depths of your being. You are the body of Christ. So, move! Go! You are called out to pray and to serve, BE the church because God and God’s world need you!
© 2018 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact email@example.com for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
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.