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.
4th Sunday of Easter; John 10.11-15
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. -NRSV
The Good Shepherd is a familiar and comforting image for God and for Jesus. Oddly so, because how many of us have contact with sheep and shepherds on a regular basis? When I looked up sheep farming in America, I found a website, sheep101.info, with this information:
According to the 2017 Census of Agriculture, there are 101,387 sheep farms in the United States. Large sheep operations, which own 80 percent of the sheep, are located primarily in the Western United States. Texas, California, and Colorado have the most sheep.[i]
Little did I know…I am too much of a city dweller. Perhaps, some of you come from sheep farming families here in this state and you are more familiar with real sheep and real shepherds. I had never been up close and personal with them until I traveled to Ireland and Scotland in 2009. I found sheep everywhere as I traveled the country roads or hiked the moors and hills.
The image of God as shepherd is ancient in our Judeo-Christian religious tradition. Psalm 23, possibly composed around 1000 BCE, is so familiar with that many of us can recite it from memory. The prophet, Ezekiel, was prophesying in the late 6th century BCE. In Ezekiel, chapter 34, the prophet speaks for God, shaming and condemning the false/bad shepherds who have led the people astray. Then God says:
As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. … I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, …[ii]
You can hear the echoes with the psalm and with John’s passage. (Back to Me)The Hebrew patriarchs, Abraham, Moses and David, the young king, were all shepherds. It is in this tradition that Jesus says in the gospel of John, “I am the good shepherd.” New Testament scholars tell us that the Greek word “good,” kalos, actually has a larger connotation that just “good” as in “does a good job.” It means “model.” “I am the “model shepherd.”
As God is shepherd, so is Jesus who models the very essence of being caretaker of the people. As caretaker, as shepherd, Jesus is gathering God’s people together under the overflowing love and protection of God. Jesus, as shepherd, is willing to lay down his life for God’s people. Since our text is from chapter 10 of the gospel, you can hear the writer’s foreshadowing of Jesus death which comes in chapter 19.
The literary and theological metaphor of God and Jesus in God’s image as shepherd, of God’s people as sheep, of the threats and dangers to God’s people, can be spun out in many ways. A pastor could preach a series of sermons on this metaphor. The very word, “pastor,” comes from a 14th century French word meaning shepherd and is related to the word pasture, where the sheep are fed. So what do we make of God as the heavenly shepherd and Jesus, God’s word made flesh, the shepherd who laid down his life for the God’s people? Who are the flock, the sheep? All people? The church? If a pastor is the shepherd, are the parishioners the sheep?
Some folks would object to being called sheep because sheep have a reputation for being not so smart! I read in one commentary that this reputation comes from cattle ranchers. Cattle are herded by being prodded literally and vocally from behind. If you stand behind a sheep and yell, it will simply go around and get behind you. Sheep want to be led from in front. They want to follow the voice of the shepherd they know and trust or the shepherd’s whistle to the sheep dogs. It is only when they are ill that they follow a stranger’s voice. Or refuse to follow and wander off into ravines or fall from a height. I happen to know as a pastor that some people like to be led with encouragement from in front, and some people from encouragement behind, and some from alongside. So, the sheep metaphor is definitely not literal when it comes to people!
Here is what I’d like us to consider today …. if the Lord is our shepherd…if as Jesus says in John, he is the model shepherd who will willingly and with no coercion lay down his life for the flock…if we as the church are God’s flock – and I mean “we”, pastors included and not set aside in an elevated position – then, are we listening to the shepherd’s call? And if so, how? Because the shepherd’s call leads us home, even thru dark valleys to a place of care and rest, flowing streams of love and green pastures of food for our souls. It leads us away from dangerous pitfalls and into the safety of transparent and loving community. In these tense and fractious times, we need to listen carefully to God’ call to community as we worship, as we meet on Zoom, as we pray for one another, as we listen to the guidance of our strategic planning team. We need to do our individual work of listening so that God can be gathering and leading us all in community. We need to be assuming the best of one another in this exhausting time of pandemic when we all have frayed nerves and are glimpsing the light at the end of the tunnel but can’t quite reach it yet. Otherwise, we will be like scattered sheep, wandering off on our own. God, the protector and gatherer of God’s people is calling us together through the voice of Jesus and through God’s Holy Spirit to new and renewed community as we begin to come out of isolation into safe gatherings and as we continue to grow our work together building God’s realm here and now in northern Colorado.
When I was in Scotland in 2009, I stayed for almost three weeks on a tidal island, the Isle of Erraid, in the Inner Hebrides with a spiritual community connected to the Findhorn community of northern Scotland. This community lived in stone lighthouse keeper houses, working and praying together and offering hospitality to people coming from the mainland for retreat. It was early October. And while I was there the time came for the annual sheep round up. As I hiked the island, I had seen many, many sheep. In my inexperience, I didn’t realize or take note that they were all part of the same flock. They belonged to a shepherd named John who lived nearby on the Isle of Mull. It was time to gather the sheep for yearly inoculations and for the lambs to be sold at market. The people of the Erraid community gathered one morning to help the shepherd round up the sheep by walking the 462 acres of the island, hills and bog land and beaches, in groups that herded any stray sheep to the center valley where the sheep dogs and the shepherd could gather them safely into the flock.
Before we left, we held what they called an “attunement.” For me, it was prayer. We stood in silence in the lovely chill of the morning air with the sun just beginning to warm things a bit. Gradually people began to offer up affirmations, “prayers”. “May we all go in safety. May the sheep be safely gathered in. May the mothers be comforted as they are separated from their lambs for the first time.” I was in awe…a little stunned that we were praying for sheep and then ashamed that I was stunned. Why wouldn’t we pray for sheep as creatures of God and the source of the shepherd’s livelihood?
Then off we went. I ended up with a group on a high bluff where I could see and hear the shepherd signaling the sheep dogs. It was amazing the way the dogs worked at his whistling commands, amazing how hard they worked to gather the sheep into a safe group. Suddenly all the biblical shepherd imagery I had ever heard became clear. At that moment I saw the shepherd as the Lord of Psalm 23… I first thought of the sheep dogs as the pastors trying to gather the flocks. On further reflection, I think the sheep dogs are more likely the Holy Spirit trying to gather us all into God’s fold.
Suddenly there was a huge gasp from the group I was with. An older ram, had gotten itself out on the ledge of a bluff across the way from us. The dogs were working frantically to help the sheep turn around and go back the safety. A couple of people were on the ground below waving their arms at the sheep to get its attention. One was trying to find a way to safely climb down to the ram. But even with all this effort of care, the ram backed itself into a corner and then fell to its death. And there was an even bigger gasp as we watched it fall. And tears in the eyes of the community.
Eventually we gathered in all the sheep and walked them home by a path to the barns where the inoculations began and the sorting of the lambs from the mothers. The mood was joyous that the sheep were all home. And it was tinged with sorrow for the old ram that was lost despite all the care and the work of the shepherd and his dogs and the people of the community. It was a living metaphor for me of the real-life workings of God and God’s people in community.
My friends, I challenge you today: take another look at the Lord as our shepherd, at Jesus as the model shepherd giving all he has to gather the flock, at the Holy Spirit eager to round us all up. Our nerves are frayed from a year of pandemic and the turmoil of politics and racism. We are feeling our frustrations keenly. Yet we are being called home to our souls, called to rest in prayer after a long time of struggle and loss, called by God’s love to gather in love with one another. I invite you this week to re-read Psalm 23, perhaps daily. Read it slowly, resting in each image. Read John 10.11-15 slowly, prayerfully, letting the image of the Jesus, the model shepherd, willing to call you back home by laying down his life for you in the dark valleys, sink deep within your heart. Remember that the Holy Spirit is animatedly gathering us together as God’s people even as we are still socially distanced. (Back to Me) Remember, pray, allow yourselves to be led home in peace! Amen.
©The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson, 2021 and beyond. May be reprinted with permission only
[ii] Ezekiel 34. 12,15-16a
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.