Rev. J. T. Smiedendorf
Plymouth Congregational Church
Fort Collins, CO
What do you want? I mean what do you really want?
We are moving into a social season of intensified appeals to want. Advertisers will increasingly try to entice your wants, shape your wants, even redirect your wants. Although what is most powerful is when an advertiser can get us to see their product or service as a fulfillment of a want we already have, especially a deep want, a deep intangible want. It’s not just a car, it’s security and reliability. It’s not just a truck, it’s power and manly status. It’s not just a toy, it’s happiness. These are the deepest wants, the intangibles, the deep ones that have to do with meaning and purpose, values and identity, love and acceptance.
Something that is offered to us as a community of faith is the journey into life giving depth. It’s not that living life in a sacred manner might not involve the delight of a desired product or service, a needed new car, a comforting massage. It’s that there is a call of faith to living into a depth that sees through the illusory or shallow aspects of stuff and amusements into what is of lasting or life-giving value, what we really deeply and truly desire and need.
A faith of resilience and wisdom knows that there are things such as enough, and such as when and where, and such as first things first, and such as beauty and truth. Such a way of life knows when it is the right time for a new car or a massage.
From the place of the soul, the question of what do you want can also be phrased, ‘what do you long for’? In your heart of hearts, for what do you long, for yourself and for others? Or even what do you dream and desire for the world to be? I like that term desire. I have a sense of desire as calling forth something that we feel in the body, something deep in us.
And deep want is the place to which we are faithfully invited when we consider the identity and the expression of being a steward. Stewardship is more than just our October theme. It’s an ‘always theme’ of being a person or a community of faith. Next Sunday, Consecration Sunday, we are asking for each of us to pledge a contribution for 2022 so we can plan responsibly for our ministry and mission in 2022.
Yet, all of this occurs within the larger, ‘the always’ context of faith and stewardship, the context of valuing and trusting and serving something greater than ourselves. Some years ago at a church retreat, the congregation I was serving summarized that something greater as the flourishing of life. We could call it the Realm of God, or the Body of Christ, or Shalom, or justice, peace and the integrity of Creation. Isaiah called it a “new heavens and a new earth.” We could call that kind of something greater a faithful vision of what we really want, what inspires us, touches us, and calls us to celebration and action.
This talk of of vision and hoping for something reminds me of the book Active Hope by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone. This book has a subtitle: How to Face the Mess We are in without Going Crazy. In it, Macy invites us into facing the global environmental crisis by viewing hope not as a feeling based on a prediction of what will happen, hope based on a likely outcome, but into hope based on desire, based on intention, based on our highest vision of what we want for the world, what we most deeply value becoming real. Out of that vision of value and deep desire, we act out our hope. Our hope is active in our living out of and into the vision of what we deeply want.
As noted by Macy in Active Hope and by others in the field of change, starting with the end in mind may be the best way to begin. Starting with what we really want, starting with a deep imagining of what we want to see happen. We can do that now. Perhaps for Plymouth Church, perhaps for Fort Collins, perhaps for Colorado or for all Creation. The Strategic Planning Team has offered a vision of five years forward. Review their vision.
And you can move into the future perhaps 10, 20, or even 50 years. Close your eyes and see if it deepens your imagining. Imagine with all your imaginative senses what it is like to have our deepest hopes come to be. In positive terms, not imagining what you don’t want or what isn’t there, but focusing on what you do want and on what is there, imagine what you desire for the flourishing of life. What is that like? What do you see? What do you smell? What do you touch and taste? What do you hear?
Those who research this process encourage us to set aside “the how” in this phase of the process and just focus on the what. When we have filled that positive picture up, we take time to feel in our hearts the desire for it and the joy in its coming. Only then do we ask the question, how did we get here? The imagination is used to trace backward in time the steps that led to that change until we come back to the moment in which we stand. We come back to the now moment and are able to more adequately act with effectiveness to move on the path toward that greater something we seek.
I can think of instances in the life of churches I’ve served and even my own life where I couldn’t imagine how I would get to somewhere or some way, but those churches did and I did. Somehow the vision did manifest. With a focus on the vision and persistent steps, and sometimes with unexpected gifts and graces, the new was and is birthed, even the hard-to-believe "NEW."
This morning’s sacred reading from our Scriptures is an example of vision, a description of what (Third) Isaiah understood God really wants to have happen with human beings; to have fairness for those who labor, that they be rewarded with adequate fruits of their labor, that people are healthy and live full life spans, that there be an end to violence. Described beautifully in images that we can use to more deeply enter this reality, this desire, these images invite us to see elders and children together, to taste fruit and feel the shade of the vines, to hear the pounding of the swords into plowshares (Longmont UCC).
And, here and now, as much as ever, we are called to have a vision of the Realm of God, a place where there is balance in the relationships of humanity and in Creation so that we see polar bears walking on plentiful ice, and hear the songs of songbirds aplenty, and see the sight of whales breaching, and of students filling classrooms in productive learning, and of workers performing jobs with good pay and benefits, and smell good nutritious luscious food in the air, and hear the sound of music and laughter.
If our prayer that heaven may come upon the earth is to manifest, we must be on the path of stewarding our individual and communal lives, and that includes feeling and holding that vision of what we truly deeply want: the flourishing of life that the God of Grace and Justice wants for Creation.
What do you see and feel and smell and hear when you imagine that vision of what God wants for the world? What vision do you see and feel and smell and hear when you imagine what God wants for Plymouth Church? What can you do with your time, talent, and treasure to help manifest it?
May we be about the business of vision, the imagining that opens us and guides us and sustains us being vital, joyful, and wise stewards of the life that we have received.
J. T. comes to Plymouth as an experienced interim pastor, most recently, as Bridge Minister at University Congregational UCC in Seattle. Previously, he served congregations in Denver, Laramie, and Forest Grove, Oregon. Read more
*Isaiah 65:17-25 (Third Isaiah, back in Judah but struggling)
17 For I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind.
18 But be glad and rejoice forever
in what I am creating;
for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy,
and its people as a delight.
19 I will rejoice in Jerusalem,
and delight in my people;
no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,
or the cry of distress.
20 No more shall there be in it
an infant that lives but a few days,
or an old person who does not live out a lifetime;
for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth,
and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.
21 They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
22 They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat;
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
23 They shall not labor in vain,
or bear children for calamity;[a]
for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord--
and their descendants as well.
24 Before they call I will answer,
while they are yet speaking I will hear.
25 The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,
the lion shall eat straw like the ox;
but the serpent—its food shall be dust!
They shall not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain,
says the Lord.
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
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
All literature, sacred or not, is created within the context of culture and history. Some types of writing — like wisdom literature — endure, while other types fade with time. The setting for this morning’s text is, of course first-century Judea, a region under Roman occupation for a little less than a century, and it would be another 30 years or so until the Jews rose in revolt and about 35 years until the Romans would defeat the Jews and demolish the Second Temple. The people Jesus is speaking to are living under the boot of the Roman Empire. Think of occupied France during World War II and you’ll get the picture: people living under military occupation, religious oppression, economic oppression, and a growing hatred of the occupier.
Both Jesus and his inquisitive friends, the Pharisees, were anti-Roman, but the Pharisees had a leg up as members of the religious establishment. So, when they send their students, their disciples, over to Jesus to pose a question, they are trying to get Jesus into a double-bind, either by admitting that it was legitimate to pay the occupiers or whether a tax revolt was more appropriate.
Of course, Jesus doesn’t play into their hands, he does some rhetorical jujitsu, asking them to pull out a denarius. It’s the type of Roman coin that would have been in circulation when Jesus told the Pharisee, “Show me the coin used for the tax.” And when Jesus says, “Whose head is this and whose title,” I always just assumed, it’s a picture of Caesar and it says that he is the emperor…but there is more to the story.
After doing a Google search for an image of an early first-century denarius, I found the two sides of the coin you see on your screen. On one side you see a profile of the emperor Tiberius (who was the emperor at the time Jesus told this story) and o;/the reverse side there is a seated image of Livia, the mother of Tiberius. So those are the people pictured, but Jesus also asks “whose title?” Well, I expected it to say that Tiberius was the emperor. But that’s not exactly what it says. Around the edge of the “heads” side of the coin, starting under Tiberius’s chin and reading counter-clockwise, it says, “TI” for Tiberius, “CAESAR” (which you can translate yourself!) “DIVI AUG F,” which in abbreviated form means “son the God Augustus,” and also inscribed is Tiberius’s own title “AUGUSTUS” which is a politico-religious term that means “venerable, worthy of worship.” And on the “tails” side of the coin you can read Tiberius’s other title, “PONTIFEX MAXIMUS” or highest priest. So, the titles aren’t just political, but go to the heart of Roman imperial cultic religion.
A good, pious Roman would think that paying taxes to Caesar WAS giving to God, or in Tiberius’s case, the son of a god. But, of course, every Jew in the ancient world, including Jesus himself, knew that Augustus was not divine. That’s what the Pharisees are getting at…but Jesus turns their question on its head, challenging the hearer to question and distinguish what belongs to God and what belongs to Caesar.
They are vying for the hearts and minds of the people: Caesar on one hand and God on the other…the Roman Empire on one side, the kingdom of God on the other. And when you live in a tiny country under occupation by Roman legionaries, it may be easier to see the force of empire than to see the immediate reality of God.
When new members joined our congregation earlier in the summer, they offered the same words of covenant that all who join this congregation say. And perhaps we don’t think of those phrases as being countercultural, but they are. When we say, “I give myself unreservedly to God’s service,” we are pledging our lives and our allegiance not to Caesar, but to God.
For me, that means that our primary loyalty is to the kingdom of God, rather than the empire of Caesar – or whatever petty empire has taken Rome’s place at the center of our lives. In our covenant, we are making a statement not simply about whom we will serve, but about the way we orient and prioritize our lives. So, what does that mean to you? What does it mean to YOU to give yourself without reservation to God’s service?
We all know people who serve other gods, in fact, each of us serves them on occasion, and more than occasionally if we aren’t vigilant. We serve these other gods when our primary attention and focus is on something else. Some serve the god of personal comfort, while others serve the god of the stock market, others serve the god of white supremacy, and still others the god of power and influence. Like the old Bob Dylan song says, “You’re gonna have to serve somebody…well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but your gonna have to serve somebody.” And as Jesus says in the sixth chapter of Matthew’s gospel, “No one can serve two masters…You cannot serve both God and Mammon [sometimes personified as the demon of wealth].” And the point Jesus is making with the denarius is that you cannot serve both God and Caesar.
What does Jesus mean to imply when he says, “Give to God what is God’s?” Jesus undoubtedly knew Psalm 24 by heart, and I intentionally included it as our Call to Worship this morning. “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it.” So that little denarius, even with the picture of the emperor stamped into it, belongs to God.
Some of what belongs to God is entrusted to you for your good use. I see what some of you do with the gifts and graces and dollars God has put in your hands. I see the work you do with Habitat, with La Foret and the wider UCC. This week, I see Plymouth folks and other ecumenical partners using our North Wing to collect clothing and supplies for immigrant children who arrived in this country as unaccompanied minors, and I’ve seen you outside (and inside!) our senator’s office calling for an end to gun violence. And I see what you do to keep this church not just plugging along, but vital. I see our Council working hard to make tough decisions and guide us toward a future that will be different after the pandemic is through. I see our deacons and my staff colleagues finding creative ways to reach out to you during this tumultuous time. And it requires you taking part of what God has entrusted to you and investing it in the mission and ministry of your church. And if you ever get confused about who we are meant to serve, just pull a quarter our of your pocket to read the reminder under George Washington’s chin: In God We Trust.
May it be so. Amen.
© 2020 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.
As Conference Minister for the UCC Rocky Mountain Conference of churches, Sue has responsibility for guiding, leading, and encouraging the Conference to live out Christ’s call to service, mission, and ministry here in the Rocky Mountains. Alongside the RMC Board, Sue has helped the Conference complete the re-visioning process begun at the June 2013 Annual Meeting, and led us to plant Mission Seeds in 2015. In January 2016, Sue was nominated jointly by the Board and Search Committee for settled Conference Minister of the Conference. On Friday, June 10, 2016 at the Annual Meeting in Salt Lake City, Sue was voted unanimously as Conference Minister by the voting delegation. She was installed on August 20, 2016 at La Foret Conference & Retreat Center in Black Forest, Colorado. Read her full professional bio.
The Rev. Charles Buck is president and CEO of United Church Funds. Rev. Buck's leadership with the UCC has spanned 30 years at the local church, conference and national levels. He has served as pastor of churches in Northern California and Hawaii for over 15 years, then as conference minister for Hawaii and New Hampshire for a total of 14 years.
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph
Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ
Fort Collins, Colorado
[The sermon was preceded by a “Stewardship Moment” from the Wray family, including three-year-old Faith.] First, thank you so much to Curtis, Jackie, and Faith for your Stewardship family reflection this morning. Truly, my theology tells me that your words were the most important sermon today by the power of testimony. Your story of generosity is the best Word we could receive on giving. This testimony to the power of finding a home in God’s house, especially at Faith’s age, is priceless indeed. Thank you!
As I attempt to add even a small light to the beacon of hope we have already encountered through Jackie and Curtis, will you pray with me? May the words of my mouth and the offerings of all of our hearts be good and pleasing to you, O God, our rock and the Great Steward of our lives. Amen.
When I was Faith’s age of around three years old, I also remember experiencing my very first lesson on Stewardship and the reason for giving. Having a younger sibling helped one learn early the difference between “mine” and “ours” and “hers”! Ironically, early lessons on giving didn’t come from the Church.
While I do remember church things like rummage sales and coloring pictures of Bible stories in Sunday School at First Presbyterian Church of Manasquan, New Jersey [I was very bad at coloring in the lines even then], Stewardship and the church are not connected in my early memory. My first formation on Stewardship, giving, philanthropy (“philanthropia” a word that literally means "the essence of being human" or "kindness" or "giving for the love of people"), and collective social responsibility didn’t come from a pulpit or Sunday School classroom.
As was the case for most of my generation, early lessons about giving, sharing, and philanthropy came not from church but from PBS and Sesame Street’s The Reverend Big Bird in particular.
Sesame Street in the late 80s and early 90s was at the peak of its success and was part of the daily if not hourly lives and early memories of most of us early American Millennials. Yes, my first memory of Stewardship Sermons came from The Rev. Elmo, The Rev. Big Bird, The Rev. Cookie Monster and The Rev. Grouch. For the record, I did consider dressing-up as Big Bird this morning for the sermon, but then decided against it after looking into copyright laws. Maybe next year.
At the end of every program, after Elmo and Oscar had signed off, PBS had one more word for us, a ritual of sending, a benediction of gratitude that went and still goes like this:
“This program was made possible by the corporation for public broadcasting, and by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. [Long Three Second Pause] Thank you!”
You mean that these friends and educators, Oscar, Elmo, Big Bird, The Count, Reading Rainbow, Ken Burns, NOVA, The American Experience were made possible, realized, enabled, brought to life, animated by someone like me? Someone else is out there like little old me? That is such a powerful, political thought. With our powers combined, we can make things like TV or community happen. Really!? The little phrase, “viewers like you,” had two huge effects!
The first was an immediate visualization of all of the viewers “like me” out there. Even as a young gay kid, I remembered this lesson from the fundraising wing of PBS that there are others “like me” out there sitting in front of screens wondering the same thing I was about Bert and Ernie. Are they? Could they be? Viewers like me. The first lesson was that you are not alone as a viewer out there and you are collectively powerful. I believe that subconscious message was probably why this meant so much to so many.
What can the church learn about fundraising from PBS? We can learn the power of reminding you that you are in fact the institution. Viewers, worshipers, prayers, contributors, congregation… it is all you! Viewers like you make this possible. Amen!
The second lesson is the power of thank you and gratitude. There is a full three second silence before the words “Thank you” flashed across the screen. There is so much power in saying thank you well, at the right time, and repeatedly. And, yes, the church like PBS does need to say thank you every week and every day. Nothing is owed to us as an institution from our members as expected. It is all in the category of miracle of philanthropy: for the love of humanity! Everything is given in freedom and love. So, yes, thank you, no matter what you pledge, for making this possible. A Confession: This is why I run our stamp budget way WAY up over the past four years with thank you notes—thank you! I have a compulsion for writing thank you notes. I believe that Thank you is always worthwhile.
“This worship service, FFH and N2N, Habitat, Christian Formation course, sermon, song, organ, choir, building, community, potluck, Open and Affirming lifesaver of a place and theology was made possible by the Holy Spirit, and by contributions to your local church from viewers, people, individuals, faithful few like you. [Long Pause] Thank you!”
I then dug a little deeper. When I did a search for this phrase, “viewers like you,” on Google, the true impact of that campaign and its value on how we give and understand Stewardship became apparent with over 153 MILLION search results and articles about this PBS impact statement alone. Then I dug a little deeper yet finding several YouTube videos consisting of nothing but the original PBS “Viewers Like You” clip that so many of us grew-up with. The one clip alone that I watched had over 300,000 views and many comments. I read the comments and realized that there is a theological lesson for the church for Stewardship (Philanthropy… for the love of the people as they are) here… an important one.
Here are just five of the responses from my generation to this PBS statement:
“Who remembers feeling special as [heck] when they would say, ‘thank you!”
“I had a huge obsession with this funding since I was in 5th grade.”
“I literally looked this up just to watch this. I miss it!”
“Every time I hear or see ‘made possible by’ I always think of this.”
“Grew up on this.”
The Church could be so lucky to have comments like these. Do you hear the sense of belonging, ownership, community, engagement in these quotes? This is about something bigger than Sesame Street. This is what we need for the church!
We must recapture the idea that all of this is made possible by you. Our worship, our community, our work, our vision, our, program, our mission, our radical agenda of LOVE of all people here at Plymouth is made possible by people like you. This is all yours. Stewardship isn’t a trap, or pressure pledge campaign. Imagine if, like PBS or NPR, we sang the first half of the hymns this month then abruptly stopped. We will keep playing the other half of the hymn when we receive ten more pledges! No, we don’t do it that way. Rather, it is the enactment of what we are called to do most in this life—commit to something bigger than ourselves and let go of worry. This is an invitation to living. Philanthropy.
Speaking of loving people as they are, let’s look at verses 21 and 22:
21 Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money[a] to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 22 When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving.
The man says leading up to verse 21 that he has it all made, but he is still so worried about his possessions. He comes to Jesus and claims that he has already finished God’s Ten Commandments and all other to do lists. Does the Scripture say that Jesus said, as it is often misremembered by some lucrative ministries that you should sell what you own and give all of the money to me…to Jesus? This text has been misused by the church to mean that Jesus wants the man to give his money to Jesus. Really, Jesus is saying that he is inviting the man to follow him and to not worry about his belongings. Jesus’ loving request is an invitation to greater discipleship rather than a demand. Jesus isn’t asking for the man’s money. Jesus is offering a sense of belonging in his movement regardless of material possessions. Jesus looked at him, really saw the man, and he loved him… “you only lack one thing.” If you say you have really done it all already, then here is a challenge.
I don’t know about you, but I am not yet at the spiritual point where that man claims was! He only had one more thing left to do—sell all his possessions and follow Jesus. Boy, I have a long way to go before I claim that I need a bigger to do list from God. Most of us will never get to that point, but we too are invited to be part of the solution, the cause, the movement with Jesus. Viewers like you…wherever you are!
I have one more thing in closing to add as a critique or further wisdom for the church and PBS/ NPR. For years PBS and NPR and the Church liked to use the language of “sustaining gifts.” How many of you have heard an ask for “sustaining gifts?” Most of us, right! The phrase “sustaining” means fundamentally that we have been looking for gifts that are adequate enough to maintain the status quo. By its very definition, sustaining is a conservative, life support, status quo sort of effort. Looking at the world around us today, how many of us want to sustain what we see as the status quo environmentally, economically, socially, politically, or ecclesiastically? [Congregation responds.]
For generations, Stewardship has been done in terms of sustaining gifts—gifts that are offered in the hope of an outcome of the status quo being maintained, managed, or sustained. Two years ago, when Obama was still president, I was invited to spend a Saturday at a regional HUD [Housing and Urban Development] meeting about the direction of housing and urban development around the world, and my entire understanding of what the goal of Stewardship of resources should be for governments, churches, and non-profits changed radically forever. I was offered a new framework.
One of the speakers was the dynamic director of the Department of Local Affairs Office of Resiliency at that time. I remember vividly as she explained the difference between a sustainability framework and a resiliency framework. “The Department of Local Affairs' Colorado Resiliency Office supports and helps empower Colorado communities in building stronger, safer and more resilient in the face of natural disasters and other major challenges. The CRO coordinates overarching recovery and resiliency activities by collaborating with numerous multi-disciplinary local, state, federal, and private partners in setting priorities, leveraging resources, communicating transparently and delivering measurable results to shape an adaptable and vibrant future.”
Isn’t Colorado cool? In the face of the adaptive change in our state and world and climate, our state understands that sustainability and sustaining gifts is no longer the way to problem solve. We must think bigger, reconceptualize what our viewership, participation means. It is only viewers, Plymouth members like us, like you, like we that can make this institution resilient. Cleveland and the National UCC won’t save us. The National Council of Churches won’t do it. Our Association or Conference won’t do it for us. It is up to us to make this place resilient.
Imagine our Stewardship this way: Plymouth Congregational Church coordinates overarching spiritual and community resiliency activities by collaborating with numerous multi-disciplinary local, state, federal, and private partners, non-profits, and members in setting priorities, leveraging resources, communicating transparently and delivering measurable results to shape an adaptable and vibrant future for the sake of God’s Realm on Earth and in peoples’ lives.”
Jesus calls us to not just give to the church but to transform our own lives. This is the same message that my generation received from PBS’ ending to Sesame Street—this is bigger than just you and thank you for being part of it. Philanthropy—the love of people—takes resiliency now.
Resiliency is not about saving what was, as our state has already recognized. It is about creating a future in a time that doesn’t even see or value tomorrow.
It is no longer the time for sustaining gifts, but now is the time for gifts of resiliency. Resiliency gifts are for a vibrant institution that is comprised of none other than us, than you, than me… than we. We are the resilient ones.
It is time for me to return to my Jersey Shore roots and learn to color outside of the lines of traditional sustainability again. Today is the day for us to give and vision a time in need of resilient communities.
I think that would finally make The Rev. Big Bird proud!
This program was made possible by the Holy Spirit, and by contributions to your church from viewers, believers, the faithful like you. Thank you.
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph ("just Jake"), Associate Minister, came to Plymouth in 2014 having served in the national setting of the UCC on the board of Justice & Witness Ministries, the Coalition for LGBT Concerns, and the Chairperson of the Council for Youth and Young Adult Ministries (CYYAM). Jake has a passion for ecumenical work and has worked in a wide variety of churches and traditions. Read more about him on our staff page.
October 1, 2017
Rev. Ron Patterson
This morning, as you heard, we begin our annual Stewardship campaign. This is when we are asked to support our congregation with our dollars and our dedication. I hope you know that Jesus spent more time talking about money and how we use it than any other topic. I need to confess right up front that I used to begin stewardship sermons with an apology, not wanting to offend anyone by talking about money, because in my family and in my mind that was a forbidden topic, private, secret, and off limits.
But Jesus rescued me with his honesty and some good congregations nurtured me with their generosity and dedication and helped me forget my fear. And while I will be speaking again on this topic in a couple of weeks with more specifics, I want to use my sermon time today to tell you a story.
My beloved always says that 'my little kid on the farm' stories are the best ones I tell, because unlike the other stories that help me make sense of life as a person of faith, the 'little kid on the farm' stories come from the time that molded how I look at the world as a child of God.
The farm is gone, the people who touched my life then are gone, but the memories animate my day to day.
When I was seven, I was sent to my great-grandparents dairy farm in rural Ohio to stay and for the next ten years, I spent every summer and almost every school vacation on that farm working and experiencing the rhythms of nature and the life cycle of a working farm with hogs and sheep and chickens and beef cattle and a raft of dairy cows and hay and corn and wheat and oats and gardens and canning and fields and woods and springs of cool clear water and endless chores and just plain hard work. That experience, more than school or college or seminary molded that place on the inside of my heart that I would describe as my soul.
Today, I want to tell you the story of the miraculous peach tree. But to share this story, I need to give you a little farming background. When we made hay on the farm, the hay would be cut and then when it was dry, it would be raked together into windrows so that the hay bailer could pick it up and pack it into bails. This process normally took about three days and as a little kid, since I couldn't drive the tractor yet, I didn't have much to do with it, other than helping collect and stack the bails and bring them into the barn. But sometimes, just when the hay was about dry, there would come a sudden thunder storm and you just can't bail wet hay--and then would come a chore which I hated more than any other.
It involved picking up a three tine hayfork and fluffing up the windrows of hay just enough to permit the breeze to blow in under the hay to dry it so that by afternoon it could be bailed. And I hated that job, because it was hot and it was dusty and it was in the sticky humid sun of an Ohio summer. And once in a while a snake or rabbit or a mouse would be hiding under the hay and as you walked along fluffing the hay they would jump out and for a little kid that was terrifying. And the job was endless in a way that things are often endless for a child.
One summer on a miserable hot day I was alone doing this job way out around the hill from the barn, fluffing the windrow with my hayfork when I came to the end of the field. I was so hot and feeling totally sorry for myself and suddenly I looked up and there was a tiny tree growing in the fencerow that divided our farm from the neighbor’s woods. And as I looked, I noticed that something was growing on the tree.
The tree was loaded with gigantic peaches--the size of small grapefruit, and they were ripe and they were wonderful and I ate a couple and each time I finished fluffing a windrow I stopped and ate another peach and I forgot about the heat and the snakes and the sun. That little tree became my best friend that afternoon and to this day they were the best peaches I have ever tasted.
The next summer, when it came time to work that field again, I looked for that peach tree—and the first time that summer I managed to make it to the end of that field, I was cutting thistles along the edge of the field where corn was now growing. I looked and looked for the peach tree and finally found the same place and there it was—only that year, it was just a nearly dead stump of a thing—uncared for and unplanned, it had pretty much died over the winter. There were no more peaches. It was gone.
And I have thought about that peach tree many times since. Every time I've tasted a good peach and you have great peaches here in Ft. Collins, I've wondered about that peach tree. Where did it come from? How did it get there? Chances are one of my relatives—some cousin or great uncle, had passed that way eating a peach and tossed the peach pit into the fence row. Chances are, by some miracle that peach pit grew—and by another miracle, uncared for and unbidden—that little peach tree had managed to bloom and prosper for a few years, half a mile from no where in the back of the beyond.
And while those peaches were the sweetest ones in the world—something was missing--something important was missing. There was no planning and there was no ongoing care or giving to nurture that little tree and so when the harsh wind blew across those Ohio hills that next winter, the little tree stunted eventually died.
So often in the life of the churches I have known over the years, I have seen the same thing happen to great ideas and even great congregations that did not take to heart the call of Jesus to give and to care. Too often there was this assumption that someone else would do it, or that an individual’s giving did not make a difference. Growth and leaders and mission and our work in this community depend on our enthusiasm and our financial support.
And so I am a believer. I believe in planting trees I will never live to enjoy. I believe in doing what I can to make the dream others gave me come true in a future that will not include my presence. I believe in giving that supports people as they do the love of Jesus in this community and around the world. I believe in giving to maintain this building so that my grandchildren will find the same love I experienced in my home church as a child. I believe in a music and youth program that exists to proclaim God’s love with verve and excellence. I believe in giving to support the cause of peace and justice. I believe that the more we give, the deeper our experience of God’s presence will be.
I wandered in here six weeks ago and what I discovered was a living outpost of the Jesus movement named Plymouth: people working together and loving, thinking and living, people daring and dreaming. The gifts we share and the commitment we make will strengthen this congregation and this community. The lives we live and our giving makes that possible today and for the sake of the future. I thank God for your witness and for the ministry we share. Amen.
The Rev. Ron Patterson came to Plymouth as our interim for the fall of 2017 during the Rev. Hal Chorpenning’s 2017 sabbatical. Ron has served many churches from Ohio to New York City and Naples UCC in Florida, where he was the Senior Minister for many years before retiring. Ron’s daughter-in-law and grandchildren attend Plymouth.