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. 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.