Sunday, March 19, 2017

Facing Disease


Facing Disease

A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson

March 19, 2017

at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia

Matthew 17: 14-20



Let us pray,

Help us to see despite our eyes

Help us to think outside of our minds

Help us to be more than our lives   

For your eyes show the way

    Your mind knows the truth

    Your being is the life.

Amen.





In this Lenten Season we continue our journey of Facing the Darkness, standing like that young basketball player in the gym, shooting free throws, trying to put his mind in the reality of being down 2 with 2 to shoot, or like Bill Murray’s character in Caddyshack, the Cinderalla story, lining up his shot at Augusta, armed with a scythe, ready to take a trip into glory, putting all of his weight into a clump of flowers. . . yes he’s got about a 2 iron, I think. . . we are trying to put ourselves in the mindset of what it is to face the darkness, and still be able to shine our lights. . . last week we took a look at danger, when apparent danger is all around, when you are on the boat with Jesus, and the storm is rocking, and he is sleeping, and it seems like all is lost, like He has abandoned you, to doubt, fear, and desolation, but then he steps up and calms the storm, and all of the fears and dangers subside, does our faith falter in such moments, does it grow once the storms have subsided? Perhaps, but today we head further into the depths because today we talk about Disease. . . there are so many passages from the Gospels where Jesus cures someone with a disease, but I chose this one, Matthew 17:14-20, because it offers another voice to the idea of disease and cures. . . in the Call to Worship Psalm, the psalmist speaks of his affliction caused by his sin. . . In the Old Testament story of Job, read by Erick, we see disease caused by a cosmic discussion between God and Satan, proving Job’s faith, and here, well take a listen:

14 When they came to the crowd, a man came to him, knelt before him, 15 and said, “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and he suffers terribly; he often falls into the fire and often into the water. 16 And I brought him to your disciples, but they could not cure him.” 17 Jesus answered, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him here to me.” 18 And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and the boy was cured instantly. 19 Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?” 20 He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.”



So there you have it, from this perspective we have a disease, in this case epilepsy, caused by a demon, then rebuked by Jesus, curing the boy instantly, which if the disciples had a little bit more faith, they could have easily rebuked it, for even faith like a mustard seed can move a mountain. . . so which is it, what is to blame. . . is it sin, is it lack of faith, is it demons, God proving a point to His angels, is it germs, viruses, bugs, dirt, grime, ecoli, genetics, carcinogens, loose living, not showing enough restraint, Government bureaucrats, insurance companies, drug companies, or is just plain bad luck.

One of our initial reactions to disease is exactly these, what is the cause, what are we to blame? Ever since the fall in the garden of Eden, when faced with adversity human beings look for something or someone to blame. . . it seems to help us cope, to deal, to give us again the illusion of control or allows us to cling to clear conscience innocence, that when we face trials seems so important to us, but one thing that I’ve found in my life with disease is I don’t have the first clue about it because I haven’t really experienced it first hand. I am blessed at least temporarily with youth still, and have remained relatively healthy in my life up to this point, a fact that will no doubt of course always be the case. . . young and invincible with all the time in the world ahead of me. . . no, of course not, there are two inevitables that are unavoidable aspect of long life, and those are old age and disease. . . we all face it, some sooner than others, but it is a reality we all head towards, and though when we are young it can seem like it will never happen, we are only fooling ourselves.

I came across the prayer for preparation this week in my studies. . . I found it in the Oxford Book of prayer I picked up a few years ago at a book sale. I want to start there, use it as a transition from my youth and inexperience to facing disease. . .

Lord, teach me the art of patience whilst I am well, and give me the use of it when I am sick. In that day either lighten my burden or strengthen my back. Make me, who so often in my health have discovered my weakness presuming on my own strength, to be strong in my sickness when I solely rely on thy assistance. Amen.



I remember it as clear as day. I was in my first year here, and coming in on Fridays, like I do still Mary Southard, still coming to church every Sunday, would also always have her appointment at the Beauty shop, and she would always come by a little before hand and bring the church’s mail by, and we’d talk for a bit, and then she’d have to run. I don’t think she’d mind me saying this, but one of those times she asked me if I could help her with patience. . . . I wish I had seen this poem then because it was almost as if she knew how hard the next few years would be, years where patience is truly so necessary, time moving slowly in one aspect, waiting for Dr. Visits, for bones to heal, for phone calls, etc. . . while time is constantly moving too fast, as Parkinson’s all too quickly attacks poor Tom’s body, the patience to wait, and the patience to treasure every passing moment. . . all too hard, and all too much a part of facing disease.

Like I said, I don’t have much experience with disease in my life. When I was 3 I was hospitalized for pneumonia, spent time in an incubation tent in Suffolk, during a Christmas visit to my grandfather’s, but I don’t really remember it, just glimpses and scenes. Since then I haven’t really had much, at least since being a senior in high school, with a recurrence of pneumonia again, but this time during football season. . . I played a game against our rivals, played every snap, was coughing in the huddle, then was coughing up blood after the game in the showers. . . tried to refuse to go to the doctor, lest I should miss the next game, I did, got the xrays, yes pneumonia, and yes, would miss the next game, and haven’t had much time for doctor’s since, and to this point have been healthy enough to not need to go.

Yes I have no experience, but I look around this congregation and think back on the last 5 plus years, and think of how much disease you all have faced. Many of you are the experts with the experience. Cancer, heart attacks, back surgeries, a broken pelvis, more cancer, hip replacements, broken ankles, broken hips, even more cancer, seizures, fibro myalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, still more cancer, alzheimers, dementia, over medication, under medication, even still more cancer, Parkinson’s, trouble with cancer treatment, shingles, brochitis, you name it we’ve faced it, or you’ve faced it. What is it like? You tell me. . . and some of you have.

I’ve heard the question why? Why me, I thought I did everything right, I’m too young for that, I never smoked, I always tried to eat right, no one in my family has ever faced this, why me? Doesn’t this take us back to where we started, our initial response to disease is about assigning blame, even if it is ourselves, because we want it to all make sense, we want to be in control, and if it makes sense we are in control. I’ve heard it from people again and again. I want to know why. . . . and don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that this is something we shouldn’t do, but rather saying just that it is something we all do. I think that is the sentiment pouring through in the Psalm. . . “There is no soundness in my flesh because of your indignation; there is no health in my bones because of my sin.” I’ve always wondered about these Psalms, especially ones like this, are they about God, or are they about people and the way we see God. . . does God in this say yes you are afflicted because of your sin. . . no, but there is something in us that thinks that way. . . I must’ve done something. . . it is like the Job friends, you must’ve done something to bring this on yourself. . . I know that any ailment I’ve had, I felt a sense of embarrassment or blame, if only I hadn’t done that, I’d feel better today. . . and there is some truth to that, I could eat better, I could be in better shape, but that is tough too because we all know someone who doesn’t eat right, who never exercises, who never gains a pound, who is in the prime of health, who is making bad choices all the time, but is doing better. . . everyone has that great uncle who smokes 4 packs a day and eats bacon every morning breakfast and a rare steak all the time for dinner, and lived to be 101. Assigning blame and causality isn’t so easy, and perhaps it doesn’t really get us anywhere, nor helps us actually face disease. . .

At some point, as I’ve seen from many of you, there is a point where the blame game, the asking why time, and the guilt is over and it is simply time to face, to fight, and to push forward. It is at this time that I have seen some of the most amazing strength out of you. When it all comes together, where there is no escape, there is just the path forward, is it there you feel real power and presence?

I’m not sure. . . I know I’ve seen it. If we look to the gospels we see countless examples of people being healed of their diseases, and in this one we see Jesus doing the same, and then also saying that the disciples couldn’t heal because of their lack of faith, and that it only takes the faith of a mustard seed to move mountains. . . I have to wonder, is it faith that causes the mountain to move, in other words is it faith in God that causes mountains to move, or faith that God has power to move mountains if God so wills. . . and that the same is true for disease. . . we’ve said it is natural for human beings to wonder why, to look to blame, around the cause of a disease, but the same is probably true about the cure. . . we look for why, when the truth is that both are mysteries. . . I have seen people healed, and I have seen people not be. . . it is enough of a mystery to leave me humbled, and enough of a mystery to leave me with faith. . . it is true that there are two things that can happen from disease. . . you can be healed or not. . . I don’t know the reasons for either they are trapped in mystery, but I have experienced enough to have faith that God’s will, will be done. . . I pray that we can know that the answer to the question why? And the answer to the question why not, are both God. . . 

I believe to my core that life is about compassion, feeling compassion for the pain that we suffer as human beings, loving through it, being faith filled in it. . . when it comes to disease, we can be healed of our disease, and continue our compassion here on Earth as a witness and testament to the power of God to heal, and if we are not healed, we head off to our rest, and stand at the Right hand of God the Father, to eternal life in heaven. . . . we can face the darkness during this season of Lent because Easter is coming, we can face the darkness of life with compassion because Christ is already Risen. . . God grant us the strength, for next week we talk about “Facing Death.” Amen.



Wednesday, March 15, 2017

A Whole New World (for Coralee's 7th Birthday)

A Whole New World
for Coralee turning 7

As a seven year old your eyes now begin to open
Unto a new world, for what used to be merely
Empty lines and dots on a white pictureless page,
Now begin to take shape for you, inviting you into
A world I have always loved. It is a world I’ve led
You through each night at bedtime, in hopes
The taste could entice your mind to join us there,
And you have. I’ve seen that spark in your eye.
It shows the curious desire to know, or at least
To spend your life seeking to know. You’ve only
Just begun, with forays into other worlds, where
Witches and wizards have schools, and talking
Beasts bravely, freely exist, saved and sustained
By the roar of a lion, and others where tiny mice
Have overcome their bashful nature to become
Knights of surpassing valor and gallantry. You’ve
Heard words have shape, and rhythm, and rhyme,
How one word can own two meanings at one time,
And though you’ve only heard, you are practicing
To see, and you’ll find that through practice you see
What otherwise would never be because you won’t
Have my filter, my slant any more. Your mind
Will take you to places only you can explore, and I
Stand waving proudly at the shore, for my dream
For you is taking place: as lines and dots form letters,
And letters words, and words become other worlds,
Though those worlds do not really exist, they do
Make it easier to find compassion for ours which does,
And you’ll be one of the privileged ones who knows
That “real” is only a limitation for those who never
Learned to see beyond the lines and the dots, whose
World is smaller and colder than yours will ever be.


Sunday, March 12, 2017

Facing Danger (The Storm)

Facing Danger
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
March 12, 2017
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Mark 4: 35-41
Daniel 6: 10-16

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives   
For your eyes show the way
    Your mind knows the truth
    Your being is the life.
Amen.

We talked last week, as we were heading into this season of Lent, about Jesus heading into the desert to face temptation, and not just him facing temptation under normal circumstances, but those ratcheted up to a great degree by 40 days and 40 nights of fast, that he headed into his confrontation with Satan, having crippling pangs of hunger, and a truly burning thirst, standing, being able to stand only by and through miracle, truly not by bread alone, and that perhaps this exactly was his way of preparing himself for the suffering of the passion, for the excruciating pain of the cross. This led us to think about Lent as a season of preparation for ourselves, and how difficult it is to prepare for the real of life because it is so hard to artificially create that realness, we can practice and practice, but if we do so in safety and comfort our preparation is limited to that safety and comfort, and when those are challenged, so too will we be, and hopefully we’ll be able to stand in our faith, shine our lights, but who really knows, so like a basketball player, shooting free throws in the gym, not just going through the motions, but trying to create in his mind that scenario, where he is down two with two to shoot, trying to mentally and imaginatively create the real, so too will we during lent try to find and experience the real of that darkness with this series of sermons, knowing there is no substitute for real and true experience, but doing our best in the mean time.
In your bulletin you will find an insert that shows our schedule for the weeks ahead leading up to Easter. . . in this facing darkness series we will look at Facing Danger, Facing Disease, Facing Death, Facing Deception (betrayed by those closest to you), and finally Facing Desertion, (when you are left seemingly all alone). Each Sunday will include an Old and New Testament story or episode, where we’ll find a character facing these situations of Darkness and look for ways that they in their situations found some way to shine their lights, and seek to see the connections between their reality and our own. . . and so today we focus on facing Danger. . . which is good as first because often these dangers are found only in our perception, in our fears and worries. . . Erick has already read a portion from the story of Daniel heading to the Lion’s Den, now we turn our eyes to the Gospel of Mark’s account of the Storm. . . Mark 4: 35-41

35 On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” 36 And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. 37 A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” 39 He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. 40 He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” 41 And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”


I’ve always loved this story, mostly because the imagery is so great, even in the typical sparseness we always find in Mark’s gospel. . . . Mark’s depiction of things is always in such a hurry.  Things happen immediately, bang, bang. . . one right after another. We don’t get much information here, but we don’t need it because our imagination and our experience does the rest. We’ve all experienced storms, literal storms, and I want to focus on the literal first because it is always good literary practice to do so, and I speak as one who has some authority on the subject, putting on my English Teacher hat. . . I don’t know how many times I say it in class, focus on the literal first, it grounds you in the details, and that is important in interpretation.
And yes we all know what storms are like. We know what it is like to hear that crazy noise on the radio, buzzbeepscccccrrrrrr. . . this is the emergency broadcast system. . . and this time it is not a test, but you are in it. . . your county made the list. . . but you really didn’t need to know that because the rain is already pouring, and you can’t see much because the windshield wipers, clicking back and forth back and forth, just can’t quite keep up. . . the temperature dropped and the windshield is fogging up anyway, and even if it wasn’t the rain drops are so close together their liquid just eats up any light that  your headlights put out, and if you flick to your high beams all you see is a thick wave of drop upon drop, some blowing sideways, some falling down, some bouncing off the windshield and hood of your car, and some being splashed aside by the wipers, still going swish swish swish. . . . and you without even realizing it you are now barely going 20 miles per hour on an interstate road, where only moments before you were going 70. . . and from the slow moving car, the sight is impressive, what you can make out,  just the power, and then you see the first flash of lightning, and a crash of thunder right on its heels. . . boom, and you see trees bending, bending bending. . . you grip the wheel tighter, your eyes bug out, you sit up straight behind the wheel, ever vigilant, creeping along. Yes you’ve been there. . . we know what it is like, from the time we were kids and heard our first house shaking thunder clap, we knew that storms were a reality outside of our control. . . there to be endured. . . safely . . . there inside, always inside, we know we have sense enough to come in out of the rain.
But what about those times when you can’t? When it creeps up on you, before you can find your way inside. . . what about being trapped outside of the safety of the inside of manmade structures? When the wind is blowing, and you can stand and face it, but like the comedian Ron White said about hurricanes. . . its not that the wind is blowing, it’s what the wind is blowing, you can hang on and face it all you want, but if that wind blows a tree branch or something large and heavy, something else at you, its possible that holding on and hanging on, and facing it head on just aint the right thing to do. . . and the disciples aren’t even on land. . . and yeah at sea, the wind may not have much sharp and heavy to blow at you, it just has you to blow, and the boat, oh yeah and of course the water itself. . . in big waves, with the boat rocking, tipping way up, then falling way down. . .
I’ve been in a boat in that situation before. . . I was teaching at Christchurch. . . teaching freshman English, and the freshmen also took Environmental Science, which was taught by one of my best friends. Now he had this great idea. . . he said hey what we need to do is take these kids on an immersion trip, we need to get them out of their comfort zones. . . he was big on these types of trips. . . I was not, but I’m a big sucker. . . he said, hey you can get them to write journals and poems and stuff about their experiences. . . now I know anytime another teacher has that great idea my red flags go up, exactly, what type of experience are you talking about. He said, We’ll take them out to this island out in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, the CBF owns an island for these kinds of trips, right by Tangier. . . we can go, stay for a couple of days, get in the mud, it’ll be a blast. . . ok, sure. . . why not. . . sucker. . . so we go, no bathroom, just a hole, called by them a Clivus, but I know some Latin, and I don’t remember Clivus being latin for “hole,” but that is certainly all it was. . . and it was cold and wet, and we were staying with a bunch of 14 year olds, about 40 boys and 10 or so girls. . . awesome right. . . yeah, can’t wait to read the poems. . . now it wasn’t really so bad, but on the way back, we are taking a small person ferry kinda boat back across the bay, and a storm picks up. . . not a big storm. . . probably not much compared to what the disciples were going through, but it was enough. . . enough to have freezing cold mist rain, that froze your fingers and cheeks. . . and you couldn’t put your hands in your pockets because you had to hold on for your life, and you couldn’t hide your head from the wind because you needed the air, and you needed to look up. . . because 50 kids were all seated around you, as I said 40 boys and about 10 girls. . . all getting seasick like you wouldn’t believe. . . as the boat, shifts up and down in the waves. . . and they are all looking to me. . . at least the ones who were not yet puking, and I stand there firm but freezing trying to show them confidence, to be strong, and keep from getting sick myself, and I sing. . . and the silly songs we are singing keeps faces up and laughing and singing along, peace in the midst of the storm and the puking. . . the storms of life, right. . . literally. . . and there I was standing strong, but what is Jesus doing?
Sleeping. . . look at the details directly from the text.
A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

Asleep, on a cushion, while the boat was being swamped by waves beating into it. . . I don’t know what I would have done, if I was there standing on that boat, holding on to a freezing and wet metal pole, keeping my head up in the wind, lest I get sick. . . I don’t know what I would have done if my friend was down below asleep on a cushion. . . ticked I think. . . Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing? Maybe I had that experience in mind when I wrote this. . . it’s there in the bulletin.
While you were sleeping, Jesus
The storm came upon us, Jesus
The rain fell on us, Jesus
The winds blew us, Jesus
The waves almost buried us, Jesus

While you were sleeping, Jesus
We filled with worry, Jesus
We were in danger, Jesus
We couldn’t find you, Jesus
We almost died, Jesus


I repeated the name Jesus because it really brings it front and center. . . they are blaming Jesus. . . if you ever wondered why the ancient Hebrews put such sanctity on the name of God, never saying it, its because using names has power, and repeating it like that shows it. . . it can belittle. . . it is an act of power, using someone’s name like that. . . think about it, you are in an argument, and you out of the blue decide to mention their name. . . it is totally condescending. . . the disciples don’t use the name, they say, Teacher. . . Rabbi. . .which may be worse. . . hey teacher, remember this is your job to protect us, we are in danger and you are here sleeping. . . really?
39 He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm.

I finish the poem like this. . .

Then you awoke, Jesus
The wind and rain stopped, Jesus
The waves were calmed, Jesus
We were saved, Jesus
But we are so afraid, Jesus

And we are afraid. . . aren’t we. . . even though we’ve been in storms before, still talking literal storms, even though we’ve been in storms before we are still afraid because they are awesome and like I said earlier, they are completely out of our control, and we don’t like that, we like to be in control. . . and Jesus says. . . You of little faith, be not afraid. . . or actually in Mark’s version it is so much more powerful. . . he asks them, “why are you afraid, and says, have you no faith.” Now that you’ve seen, now that you’ve experienced, why are you still afraid. . . and we are. Though we’ve been in storms before, and have made it through, we still have those moments of doubt and fear. . .  and of course there is more to this story than the literal. . . there are also figurative storms. . . look at Daniel. . .
Known, trusted, interpreter of dreams and the writing on the wall, living in peace and comfort in the palace of the King, even given and dressed in his own purple robes of royalty. . . but then the wind shifts, and other advisors plot his demise. . . before he knows it, he finds himself in a completely different world, one where the rules have changed, and the simple act of worshipping his God is no longer allowed. . . he remains firm, prays to God, but the advisors, accuse him of breaking the new law, and the shifting whirlwind lands him with a death sentence, a night with hungry lions. . . a perfect picture of the out of Daniel’s control storm, plenty to be afraid of. . . at the control and whims of others. . . and the thunder rolls. . .
We’ve been there too, songs are written about such things. . . the thunder rolls and the lightning strikes, another love goes cold on a sleepless night, as the storm blows on, out of control, deep in her heart, the thunder rolls. . . . we often find ourselves in the storms of life when things feel like they are out of control, when there seems to be danger, when the world is shifting and turning, and change is all around us, the rules, the things we counted on, our ballast, our systems are failing and flailing in the blowing winds of change. . . be it politics, or economics, or personal relationships, we feel it, and we are afraid because we do not have the control. . . but what do we do with our fear. . . what are we? Who do we become? It’s quite a question:
DeAnna and I watched a movie this week, serendipitously and providentially so. . . I had no idea it would be perfect for this sermon, we were just looking for something to watch, but it was perfect, because the movie was all about who do you become when you are facing dangers. . . what does fear do? It was called Unthinkable, and it was a situation where this terrorist had placed three nuclear bombs in three US cities, but he didn’t say which cities, he just said they would go off Friday, it was Monday. . . the authorities caught him by Wednesday. . . and they needed to get out of him where the bombs were, to save the lives of countless Americans. . . and the main plot of the movie was all about how far Samuel L. Jackson, who was the “Special Interrogator” would go in torturing this man. . . physically and mentally. . .at first the FBI and CIA and military operatives also there tried to hold him back, but little by little as they were overcome with fear of the reality, they let him get away with more and more, until finally it included the murdering of the guys’ wife in front of him, and then what was “unthinkable”bringing in his children. . . until finally the FBI agent had enough and pulled the children out saying it was not worth it. . . and the movie ended right then. . . we don’t know whether the bombs went off. . . the movie wasn’t about that, it wasn’t about the bombs, but about our values, when placed in front of the real. . . I’ve said, character is who you are when the pressure is on and it is real. . . Jesus says. . . why are you afraid, do you still have no faith?
What does he mean? I think he means, don’t you see that I’m with you. . . that it will be alright, that if I can control the waves and the winds, then you don’t need to worry about not having control yourself. . . that you can rely on me. . . even when it looks like you are sleeping? And silent? And that you don’t exist? Jesus. . . especially then. . . he says.

Do we remember that Jesus has led us safe thus far, and that he will lead us home, that God Our Help in Ages past is also our hope for years to come? Do we remember such things in the depths of the storm. . . and what difference would it make if we could remember such things. . . I hate being cold, I hate being wet, and I have a history of motion sickness, but for some reason on that boat with all those kids, I knew that if I stayed firm, they could look to me, and they needed that. . . It wasn’t much, but it was something, and I was given the strength to make that stand. . . in the face of that darkness I was given a light to shine. . . it was not one I could have planned, it was not one I could have said, yes that’s me, I have that skill, let me be that guy in that moment. . . I wouldn’t have chosen it, I was just there. . . and it was enough. Unlike, Jesus, I couldn’t rebuke the wind and calm the storm. . . I could only have faith that He would, faith that in the midst of the storm I could find enough peace. . . it makes a difference. . . it makes all the difference in the world. . . it is a little thing. . . but it makes all the difference in the world. . . the very power of faith. . . and often being a standing witness to that faith. . . is enough shining light to reveal the illusion of the darkness to someone faltering in doubt. . . may God give us strength, we’ll need it because storms are only apparent danger. . . there is more to come. “We do believe, Jesus, help our unbelief” amen. Next week, “Facing Disease” 


Sunday, March 5, 2017

Facing


Facing

A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson

March 5, 2017

at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia

Matthew 4: 1-11



Let us pray,

Help us to see despite our eyes

Help us to think outside of our minds

Help us to be more than our lives   

For your eyes show the way

    Your mind knows the truth

    Your being is the life.

Amen.





Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written,

‘One does not live by bread alone,
    but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,

‘He will command his angels concerning you,’
    and ‘On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,

‘Worship the Lord your God,
    and serve only him.’”

11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.





I’ve always liked the season of Lent, the preparation for Easter. I like how there is a time and a season that is geared toward looking inwards, about repentance, about introspection, about fasting and sacrifice, about going into the desert with Jesus, the very desert for 40 days and nights that Jesus does in his fast. It is how Jesus begins his ministry afterall. . . he gets baptized by John the Baptist then heads directly into the desert to prepare and be tested. . . it made me think about what it takes to prepare. . . you know for anything. . . in my life I have prepared for many things, and as a teacher and coach I have been in charge of preparing students and players, for tests in school, for sporting events, I’ve even directed actors and singers in drama performances. . . one thing that I have learned is that you can practice skills, you can hone and refine your abilities. . . if you are a singer you can work on your range, you can learn the music, you can sing through a song again and again. . . if you are an athlete you can do drills, you can run and stretch, and work on your body, you teach yourself to run faster, to grow stronger, to jump higher. . . as a teacher I teach my students the skills of writing, vocabulary, grammar, sentence structure, the framing of ideas, the parts of an essay. . . you can do all of those things, but nothing can replace the experience gained from the real doing of something, the real competition, the audience actually being there, the lights on, the stage set, the actual moment. . . because in the moment everything changes. Adrenaline kicks in, emotions soar, nerves become a part of the equation. . . I don’t know how many times I’ve been with students who fell apart on tests, when the pressure was on, known players who were great in practice, but fell apart in the first series of the game, who hit like crazy in batting practice, but lost it all when the game was on and the other team’s pitcher was throwing. When I used to play my guitar live, I always had my music with me, because if I got up there before people it didn’t matter how memorized those songs and chords were, how many times I could play through them, I’d get in front of people and would forget words, forget chords, forget songs that I know entirely, what was I going to play, it’s like when it is time everything sometime just goes blank. That is because Pressure changes everything, the pressure of the real changes everything. . . the biggest thing for me now, and I know you’ve all seen me fighting these battles front and center in front of you, is welling up with emotions. I never know when it will happen, and without exception, it never happens in rehearsal. If it did you could practice working through it, settle the moment, practice it away, but there is no way to artificially create the moment, the pressure, the reality of the stage, or the crowd. . . you can get used to it, you can get better at it, it does form you, but only from being in the game, being on stage, taking the tests, putting it all on the line. . . there was a saying that practice makes perfect, and I remember being a Cal Ripken fan, that he had tweaked the saying that, practice doesn’t make perfect, only perfect practice makes perfect. . . I will say that only that real experience can ever make perfect.

And now let’s look at Jesus and the Devil here in the dessert, the famous temptation scene. . . and how many times have you on days when this is preached, heard the old Cookie in the Cookie Jar illustration, I have at least ten times. . . the pastor gets the kids together for Children’s time and talks to them about sometimes, we want the cookie, but we know we can’t have it, and Jesus was able to resist that temptation, that temptation for us feels like that that cookie in the cookie jar, we want it, it looks so good, it tastes so good, but mommy said we can’t have it,  and put it up on top of the fridge, so we’d have to climb up to the top. . . silently take the cookie, and take a bite. . . or even the more intense message might come next, when the kid is caught, and questioned, and the new temptation is to lie about it. . .yes we’ve all heard it. . . but this is not at all what is going on in this passage. We aren’t talking about a luxury item like a cookie, that an authority figure, for our own good, but out of our understanding made some rule about only having one cookie. . . nothing of the sort. . . we are talking about a man who has been in the desert for 40 days, fasting, no food, you can imagine that in the desert there would not be much water either. . . I don’t even know if that kind of hunger and thirst is even possible for a human being, I can’t empathize as I’ve never been close to that kind of hungry, and to be honest I can’t even imagine it, can’t even imagine what would be happening to a body in that condition, drying up, turning inside on itself, dried out, imploding. . . organ shutting down. . . in his fast. . . and it is here, not at the beginning of the 40 days and nights, but after the 40 days and nights, coming, saying, hey look at all these rocks, why don’t you turn them into bread, solve your troubles, and eat. . . man does not live by bread alone... . but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. . . those words like, “Let there be light, and it was. . .” Miracles right. . . so then Satan says, ok, prove it, prove that you have been miracled through these 40 days and nights,, stand up on this temple, and take a leap. . . God sustained you in the desert by something other than bread alone. . . take a jump, surely God would sustain  you again. . . do not put the Lord your God to the test. . . ok. . . but wouldn’t it be easier for you just to be God, then you could make the rules, make the tests, no more 40 days of fasting, no more suffering, no more cross, no more mission, you can be in charge, you can rule it all, you can make it better, you should make it better, it needs to be better, improved, this world needs to progress, you can do it, I will give it to you. . . away with you Satan, it is written that you will worship the Lord your God and serve only him. . .

Now that is ratcheting up the pressure, after 40 days of hunger to be offered food, after 40 days miraculous to want to push a little farther, after 40 days of sacrifice to be offered the world. . . that is serious pressure, and certainly the real. . . I’m not sure what is worse 40 days in the desert or crucifixion. . . I would imagine that both of them should have ended in death. . . perhaps one was good preparation for the other. . . I remember about 6 years ago or so I tried to do a Lenten Discipline that was offered by the Greek Orthodox Church, I don’t remember how I came across it, I think it was through facebook, and the bag piper at our wedding was Orthodox and had shared it, I checked it out and tried it. . . It was called “Into the Desert” and it was about seeking to recreate the fast, the introspection, and the preparation. . . it was a challenge, but like the drills at practice, or rehearsing a song in the solitary comfort of my office, it was articifial. . . it did not force me to face the realities of life. . . the darkness, doubts, fears, worries. . . it did not put me into the pit. . . so how was I going to prepare for the pits of life, the carrying of the cross, the understanding of what Discipleship and following Christ is about. . . much like the practice makes perfect line doesn’t quite get it. . . so too does another cliché about character. . . and the problem is related. . .that cliché says that character is who you are and what you do when no one is looking. . . I get it, but that is kinda like perfect practice and doing some drills. There needs to be more to it, because I think character is not who  you are when no one’s looking, but instead I think it is who you are when you are in the pit, when all is against you, when your life is crumbling, when you have every reason to  give up, give in, escape, quit, or blame others, seek control, tighten the leash, hate, cheat, lie, fudge a little bit, bend the rules. . . all of those things. You can give up all the soda and chocolate you want for lent, you can forgo that cookie in the cookie jar, but it doesn’t mean anything if you aren’t put on the edge. . . well I’ll take that back, it’s not that it doesn’t mean anything, it’s just that it means like practice, like shooting 100 free throws in the gym every night, it does make it easier perhaps, to go mechanical when the pressure is on, when there is .2 seconds on the clock and you are at the line shooting 2 down. . . elimination on the line, and you aren’t even shooting to win, but just to stay in the game. . . . yes that type of practice has value, but is not the full test. . . It’s like Job right, Satan can always come up and say, sure he’s faithful, everything is great, the sun is shining, he has his health, happiness, wealth, start taking those away one by one and he will curse you to your face.

One of greatest examples of this dilemma is from the Renaissance, a work by Boccaccio about the Plague that hit Florence, Italy in 1348. .. where somewhere between 25% and 50% of the population of the city died. . . now Florence is a paragon medieval Catholicism. It is the city of Dante, and many of the other greats. . . but when the plague hits, this great City at the Center of Christendom does not have people loving their neighbor, but rather neighbor’s stealing from neighbors, neighbors ignoring each other’s pain, looting, rioting, people walking down the street with flowers to their knows and their eyes raised so as to not smell nor see the plight of their neighbors, and if that is not bad enough, even parents abandoning children to the street. . . in the pit, when times were at their worst, people cursed God and cursed eachother. . . it was easy when things were easy, but when things got unbelievably difficult, faith, piety, and love all but disappeared. . . We need to be more than that. . . but how do we practice? How do we allow ourselves to face that edge.

This Lent I am going to challenge us in to parallel ways. . . one is I going to preach about this kind of facing the darkness. I’m going to look at the Bible stories where the characters were facing the storm, facing the pit, facing the darkness, and find those messages, find those places where we can grow stronger in facing that kind of real. . . and also at the same time as I talked about a few weeks ago, I want us to also be trying to let our lights shine. . . . for this covers the breadth of discipleship, facing the darkness, and loving anyway. . . to enter into the darkest places and still be able to shine our lights for the world. I am looking forward to the journey and don’t mind taking it because the light of Easter is always waiting at the end. . . come April 16 we will get to celebrate the wonder of our world, that we need not fear the darkness because Christ’s light shines in this world and beyond everywhere, even in the depths of Hell, for Christ’s shining light is even brighter than the bitter cold darkness of death. . . and we follow in his heavenly footsteps. . . all the way. Amen.



Sunday, February 19, 2017

Humility and Shining

Humility and Shining
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
February 19, 2017
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Philippians 2: 5-16

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives   
For your eyes show the way
    Your mind knows the truth
    Your being is the life.
Amen.


I’m breaking from the Lectionary this morning. . . I’ve never been all that disciplined to it in the first place. But this morning I wanted to preach from one of my favorite epistles. Ever since Seminary, this epistle, the Letter to the Philippians has always been my favorite. It holds so many of the great and memorable lines and quotations. So many that I wanted to include a second portion in addition to the New Testament Lesson.  I’ll read in a moment, as the Prayer of Meditation this morning, containing that famous phrase, “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.” And the other leading up to that, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. . .

Just beautiful, but this morning I want to look at something that has been on my mind this week. We are called to live out a strange dichotomy as Christians of having humility and at the same time letting our lights shine; being humble, knowing the weakness and meekness that makes us up, but in the idea that the weak become strong through the power of Jesus Christ, knowing and living into the amazing things that we can do with Christ’s perfect strength, not shrinking from them. Listen to this morning’s reading. In it you will hear one of the great hymns of the humble example of Christ, but then following straight after is yet another call to for us to let our lights shine, rather than hiding them under a bushel to bring us back to the Sermon on the Mount, like we’ve been looking at the last few weeks. Listen, Philippians 2: 5-16


Let the same mind be in you that was[a] in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
    he humbled himself
    and became obedient to the point of death—
    even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
    and gave him the name
    that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
    every knee should bend,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
    that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.
12 Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; 13 for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
14 Do all things without murmuring and arguing, 15 so that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, in which you shine like stars in the world. 1It is by your holding fast to the word of life that I can boast on the day of Christ that I did not run in vain or labor in vain.


Perhaps the thing that I am the absolute worst at in all the world, above all else, is selling myself. Do you have that problem, too? I can sell an idea, I can sell the greatness of someone else, I can even stand in front of a group of teenage boys and sell Dante, Homer, Virgil, Socrates, Keats and Wordsworth, Jesus, even Shakespeare, I can even stand in front of you all and sell Shakespeare, and perhaps if you can do that you can sell ice to an eskimo or however the story goes, but I have the worst time selling myself. And it’s strange because it is usually caught up in the dichotomy I want to talk about this morning. We as Christians, as children of God, as disciples and followers of Christ have a double legacy, a conflict that we must live in and find our way through. In one way we are called to emulate Christ, in his humility. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who though he was equal to God, did not regard his equality as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, in human form, like a slave, he humbled himself to the point of death. . . it’s very much like turning the other cheek, right, going along. . . it is the meek for instance whom inherit the Earth afterall, right. . . But on the other side, there is this call, and it is just as constant as the call to humility, that calls us to let our lights shine, let the Light of Christ Shine, for you are the Light of the World, a royal priesthood, the children of God, those whom in Christ, Christ can do all things. . . both ideas are here in this epistle back to back, being humble like Christ, and then shining like stars in the world. . . so how do you know, when to be humble, and when to let your light shine.
There is nothing that drives me more crazy than someone who is arrogant, who is constantly talking about how great they are, what they’ve done, what they’ve accomplished, one of those who is a one upper,  you know the type, who always has a story, you tell a story, and they have one, that always is one upping it, and it would be fine if it were only once and a while, but no it is every time. . . there was this SNL skit a number of years ago, with Kristen Wiig, the character’s name was Penelope, and she’d sit there and twirl her hair, and any time someone would say anything, she’d just twirl away and one up it. . . someone would say I have a dog, and she’d say oh yes, I have a dog, it’s a big dog, probably bigger than yours, so. . . ok. . . . and then the person would say oh yeah I have a cat too, and Penelope would say, Yes I have a cat, I actually have two cats, so that’s ok that’s better than yours, and one of them happens to be a tiger, so. . . You know the type, and the reason the sketch is so funny is we all know someone who is like that. . . it’s the worst, and part of being humble is to avoid being that.
We also cannot turn the tv on without seeing athletes, celebrities, politicians, talking heads, everyone, is so sure, that they absolutely know, they know what you should do, what you should care about, what you should think. . . and it doesn’t matter how wrong they were a week ago, they are talking again, and just as sure that they are right, and that they know. . . and they are paid to be arrogant. . . and we find that odious . . . and so with those types of things always in the back of your mind. . . and more. . . how do you ever begin to sell yourself? How often do you hold back even though you do have a story because you don’t want to be “that guy”? How often do you hold back the idea you have because you don’t want to appear a know it all. . . where is the line?
How do you, in a world where everyone is being aggressive and where arrogance sells, how do you find a way in, how do you let your light shine? How do you begin to sell yourself, while still holding on to your conscience, that voice in your head that wonders, did I cross a line there? Did I just become what I disdain? It’s hard. . . but we are called to let our lights shine, and frankly the world needs us to let our lights shine. . .
I was watching a movie this week, maybe you have seen it, it is called “Thirteen Days”. . . . it was probably made about 10 years ago or so. . . it is about the Cuban Missile Crisis, and Kevin Costner plays Kenny O’Donnell, President Kennedy’s special political advisor, and with Bobby Kennedy, the three of them plus the whole cabinet, wade through the Thirteen Days where we were closer than we’ve ever been to Nuclear War. . . it is a fascinating movie because it shows the inner workings of the White House, the cabinet, security advisors, Joint-Chiefs, handling of the Press—fascinating in today’s world, thinking of the turmoil of the last two weeks with our new executive branch. . . but who wants to go there, especially in a sermon about the odiousness of arrogance, right?. . . . but there is this point where the three of them, JFK, RFK and O’Donnell, are talking, unwinding, being second guessed by every military advisor they have, all much older men. . . and JFK says, “it kinda makes you wonder why we wanted this job in the first place,” and O’Donnell jokes at first saying it was for the money. . . . then laughs and says, you know why we wanted it, because we knew that we could do it better than any one else.
That stuck with me because that is the way you have to think about it if you are going to shine your light. And that is not arrogant, he didn’t mean it that way, he just had the resolve, to know that he was called to the action, and that skills he was given by God were right, exactly right, the perfect fit for that time and place. . . I don’t know if that happened in real life with Kennedy, but it was powerful for me this week.
Humility is a funny thing, because it really can work like an excuse for hiding our light under a bushel. False humility where you sell yourself short, either in your own mind, or out loud to others. We were talking about humility in class. . . as the opposite of pride. . . as if pride is thinking too highly of yourself, so I asked them what they thought humility was, and most of them said, thinking too low of yourself. . . as if it was just as much of a character flaw as pride, as opposed to a virtue, humility like that is not a virtue at all, in the Old Testament, we see Moses selling himself short to God, we wouldn’t call that humility, we’d call it fear, cowardice. . . not a virtue at all, but a scared hiding of his light. . . so I posed the idea, perhaps humility, if it is a virtue, that the virtue of humility is actually self awareness, to know and accept your faults, but also know your strengths, to know and appreciate the gifts you’ve been given. It made a lot of sense to me and to them, in theory it’s great, but in practice, we still feel the need to hold back.
And here is the shame of it, too, we think, we assume, we believe that other people already know, that they already see our light burning, because we know ourselves so well, we’re sure that we’ve already let them know, and to repeat it would just be laying it on too thick. . . I actually think that social media makes this phenomenon so much worse, but it was bad to begin with, but with our cyber lives, we put things up, ads for ourselves, and we assume that everyone knows everything that we have posted online. . . but what percentage do they actually know, we are never sure. . . we think they do, but people really don’t know us, we don’t know each other, even as well as we think we do, and I promise you that other people actually think about you much, much less than you think they do. There is a great quote about it, and I looked and looked for it but couldn’t find it, but it is about the idea when you are young you think everyone is thinking about you, so you care what others think, but as you get older, you realize no one was thinking about you at all. . . . that’s true, but we sell ourselves short often because we think other people already know, we assume. . . and we fall into this trap of false humility, selling ourselves short.
Here is the other side of it too, I don’t think it is just ourselves, I think we run into this same trap, at church, when we think about evangelism. . . no one wants to be the pushy Christian, the flashy Christian, the arrogant, self-righteous Christian, so we rarely talk about Jesus, our faith, or our church with others. We hold back, even though for many of us, it is a central and irreplaceable piece of our lives, the very foundation it all stands on. You all give so much to this church. . . . it is a part of you, but how often do you feel comfortable inviting someone else into it, into this world, for a Sunday morning, for some other occasion, or simply for a conversation about what we are all about. . . and just like we assume people know us, we also assume that people know what church is about, but they don’t. People have no clue, and they want to know, and I honestly think that I want us to be the ones to tell them. . . . I even have trouble saying that without feeling that humility alarm go off. . . but I do, there are so many misconceptions out there about who Jesus is, what church is, what the message is, what the challenges are. . . I happen to believe in my very core, that what we say, what we hold up as Presbyterians, our Reformed Understanding of faith is the needed message in our world, but why do we hold that message back?
I want us as brothers and sisters in Christ to really think about this, both on a personal and on a church level. . . I think we can really help each other with this, make each other comfortable with sharing our stories, each others stories, to become a church that celebrates our gifts, each other’s gifts, our own gifts, and the gifts that we as this little church have to offer the world, or at least our immediate community. . . and maybe that can then help us encourage each other to share our message, our unique message, a witness of the very Lordship of Jesus Christ with world. We need to learn to help each other as Brothers and Sisters in Christ to live out the famous quote by Mariane Williamson:
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people will not feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone and as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.  



Let us seek in the next few weeks, and maybe to start to find tangible ways, during Lent, to do just that, 40 days, of shining lights would be an amazing start. Let’s begin thinking today about what we can do. If you have ideas let me know, I’ll be thinking too, and maybe, just maybe we can plan something meaningful for Lent to push this forward. Ash Wednesday is in 10 days. . . let’s think until then. . . that night with ashes on our forehead, having been reminded of our mortality and weakness, we be set free to begin something very real. Until then. . . amen.