The Rev. Dr. Ron Patterson
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, CO
A week or two ago while I was weaving, something many of you know I always do when I visit Ft. Collins, I took a lunch break, left my loom bench, and took a seat at the large knitting table at the local yarn store where I spend a lot of my free time. Often there are a dozen or more knitters or crocheters sitting at the table. That day there was only one and this person likes to talk and so as ate my lunch I listened.
They said that I would not be seeing them in the next week or two, because they would be home baking for a large church meeting to be held at the local non-denominational church they attend. I began to listen at that point rather than just politely nod while they talked and I ate.
I could not help myself. I shared with them that all the church meetings I have attended for over a year now have been online, no pastries, no cake, no cookies, not even coffee. In fact, I told them that our entire General Synod, over 3,000 people, met online this summer. Did their church expect many for this meeting? Hundreds, they said; and they planned to be baking for the next two weeks to prepare.
Once again, I could not help myself. Did that mean that those attending would all be vaccinated? And then I realized that I might have overstepped from curious to nosey and so I apologized for asking. But they responded, well, some of them might be wearing masks. And then I went full nosey and said “Are you vaccinated?” and this person smiled and said: “Let’s just say, I’m taken care of.” At that point I silently picked up my lunch, put on my mask and left the room.
I’m led to make a few observations before I get into my sermon this morning to set stage for what I hope to communicate. First, I am not particularly proud of that interaction, and might even suggest that the devil made me do it. However, that would not be fair to the Prince of Darkness, because I over-reacted, perhaps unfairly, all on my own to a couple of things this person said that gripe my heart and fry my spleen.
Calling a church ‘non-denominational’ is often, in my experience, code for conservative, non-inclusive, male-dominated and guilt driven. And often, the participants in these congregations have no idea of what their leaders believe, because they conceal their message in user friendly packages that include tons of catchy music and lots of warm fellowship, unvarnished patriotism and messages designed to make everyone feel good. We have our faults in the United Church of Christ, tons of them, but we don’t try to hide who we are behind an innocent sounding word like ‘non-denominational’. My guess, perhaps incorrect or even judgmental, is that her church has a denomination, they just don’t want you to know about it.
And second, the evasive answer to my way too nosey question might be covering an attitude that does not reflect the unconditional love of Jesus and the call of Jesus for us to love God and love one another. There are good excuses not to be vaccinated, but for the love of God, don’t cover it with some sickeningly sweet varnish that implies that God has you covered in such a way that suggests you bear no responsibility for your neighbors. Wear a mask or take other precautions.
This person said that they are taken care of—and once again, this might be terribly unfair of me, but what they might have meant was that their church peddles anti-vaccination conspiracy theories or that their pastor has told them that if they love Jesus they don’t need a vaccine to be safe or they might even believe that their faith can keep them well. Maybe, but maybe not. I got my shot hoping that it might protect me, but I got the shot because I believe in loving others enough to keep them safe.
Thank God I belong to a church that says upfront that I don’t have to leave my brain at the door to find a faith home or to grow and that this preacher and these pastors don’t try to tell you what you have to think or do, but insist that you join us in prayerful, respectful dialogue with one another and with the best scientific thought available, because I believe that reflects what it means to love God, one another and ourselves.
And I open this sermon with that story which might reveal too much of my rudeness and too little of my compassion or understanding, because I want to talk about who God is and who we are and what I believe we need to be about in this world as followers of Jesus; a world where some of the follows of Jesus seem to be up to something entirely different and dreadfully dangerous that threatens not only our future, but our freedom with a belief system that turns the way of Jesus into a power grab and a tool of repression and a direct rejection point by point of what Jesus said and did. And those are strong words but let me tell you what I mean.
My text this morning is Psalm 8. This is the Psalm that went to the moon on Apollo 11, and this is the Psalm that shows up a few times each year in the lectionary because this Psalm weaves cosmology, anthropology and theology into a powerful tapestry truthfully answering the three questions that I think define human existence, the same three questions that too many religious traditions glibly fib about.
Question one: who are we? The Psalmist says we are just a tad lower than the angels and that you and I stand at the pinnacle of God’s creation. Question two: who’s in charge? A creator who acts in love and calls us to respond to life and to circumstances within and beyond our control with the same love. Question three and this one is a bit tricky: What are we supposed to do with our lives? How are we supposed to respond? How are we supposed to live? Now the faithful answer as Jesus suggested it, is to love God and love our neighbors as we love ourselves.
But there is a tiny problem. The Psalmist throws the word “Dominion” into the mix which seems to suggest that the creator God has given all of us a job description that we might not like, might not really want and might as a collective humanity have messed up royally by misunderstanding what it meant over the last few millennia, especially in the Western European thought world.
Here’s what I mean by that. This Psalm celebrates the reality of the Genesis mandated role of the human being as God’s partner in creation. The theology of our Western Christian tradition suggests an anthropomorphic cosmology, which I know sounds like baloney to those of scientific mind, but that is history and that is why for centuries in places where Christianity dominated, human dominion was too often seen as human control of the earth with tragic consequences for the environment. This view encouraged the idea that humans had the God-given right to control, to subjugate and to dominate the creation. Dig it out, drill it out, develop it, exploit it, burn it, transform it, mass produce it, market it, sell it, throw it out and then start over. Western Christians in one sense crucified the earth without seeming to know or understand what they were doing. And this idea spread empowered by Western colonialism.
But all was not lost, because in so many places and in so many traditions, some of the followers of Jesus and other faiths and often no faith, have begun to take a second look at what dominion over the earth really means, and many of our sisters and brothers, many of us, have repented the old idea of dominion as domination and partnered with the best scientists to understand that human actions, energy policies, agricultural policies and all the rest have consequences short and long term for the health of our planet and the survival of our species. Many of our best leaders in the church and elsewhere are saying that to be a Christian or to be a human, demands that we become environmentalists realizing that the actual witness of the biblical writers insists that the earth and all of creation is our neighbor as fully as the person sitting next to us.
Many years ago, I watched as a minister baptized a baby. As the minister held the little one lovingly, surrounded by the proud parents and grandparents and a supportive congregation. The minister said, “You and I have borrowed the future from this child. In how we treat one another, in how we live our lives, in how we take care of this earth, we make payments on a mortgage we hold on this baby’s future.” That’s how I understand the gift of dominion you and I have been given by God.
Now, let me return to the story of my bad behavior at the knitting table and about what I heard and understood, perhaps incorrectly about my table companion’s response to my nosey question about their vaccination status.
What I heard in their answer was a different understanding of dominion. What I heard, and perhaps projected on to their comment was a set of ideas held by some conservative Christians.
They are known as dominionists—they have taken the gift of dominion or partnership with the Holy One in the sacred task of co-creation and turned that idea into a license to dominate and control not only creation but human destiny.
They believe that it is the destiny of the United States to be dominated by Christians and that biblical law should determine the law of the land. They deny the separation of Church and State. They reject freedom of conscience. They defend their ideas by claiming religious freedom for themselves while at the same time denying it for others who do not share their political beliefs. This is a Christian nation they argue and if you are not a Christian in the same way they are, you should have limited rights or perhaps no rights at all.
One of the strangest sights if you were paying attention to the insurrection on January 6 was the number of Protestant Christian flags and crosses being carried by the rioters that day. Did that surprise you?
It was not a coincidence because dominionist ideas were driving that crowd, ideas that include the notion that certain anointed politicians will hasten the domination of this country by Christians. Sure, January 6 was political, but politics partially driven by religious fanaticism is a terrifying undercurrent revealed that day and since in the actions and attitudes of several prominent politicians, including several sitting senators and members of the house. We need to know that. We need to act as the followers of Jesus who know better.
In one sense, I know that I have gotten a bit carried away by all of this. Our progressive and inclusive stands in the United Church of Christ on so many issues urge us to be God’s tolerant people, accepting of all, inclusive of all. But when one way of looking at the Christian faith slams the door shut on the rest of us or enables conspiracy theories that threaten others or the earth or the poor or people of color or immigrants with ignorance or white supremacy disguised as patriotic piety, then we are called to sing the words of Psalm 8 with renewed devotion.
We are God’s children called co-creators by the divine. We are a little less than the angels, bearing the very image of the Holy One. We are sisters, brothers, siblings of one human family. We are not miserable sinners worthy of hell, saved by the cross alone, rather we are joyful saints invited by Jesus to follow the way of life. We come to a world table today not as strangers but as welcome guests. We remember that our wholeness is guaranteed by the one who was broken because of a love that will never let us go. O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!
From July 12 to October 3, 2021, the Rev. Ron Patterson was with us again, having served as a sabbatical interim four years ago, and then serving as our interim conference minister during The Rev. Sue Artt’s sabbatical. Ron retired as Senior Minister of Naples United Church of Christ in Florida. Ron and his wife have family here in Fort Collins: their daughter is a member of Plymouth, and their grandchildren are active in Sunday school. Pronouns: he/him.