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.

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. 

Wednesday, February 8, 2017


 I take a pill to help me sleep
Another rousts me wake
I take one more to concentrate
The other to escape
They’ve always got an answer
To whatever’s wrong with me
Can’t help but wonder if I’d be cured
If they all would just agree.

Thursday, February 2, 2017



A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson

January 29, 2017

at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia

Matthew 5: 1-12

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.


5 Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 “Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you.

What do you think of when you think of blessings or being blessed? What does it mean to be blessed? These are questions whose answers are sometimes hard to put into terms. We all seem to know what blessings are. right, but maybe we have different views sometimes on what qualifies, what the spectrum is. I went and did some searching around the internet and found a bunch of quotes about being blessed. . . one of the repeated themes I found was luck, as if luck was a synonym for being blessed. . . there was a quote that said, “You may say that I’m lucky, but I’m not lucky, I’m just blessed.” So there must be times when being blessed and being lucky seem and appear to be the one in the same. . . just different sources. . . right, kinda like coincidence, and people calling coincidences God instances, because they don’t believe that things happen by accident, luck and blessings seem to fall into that same dynamic, too, kinda depends on your view of providence, but then I saw other quotes that talked about how struggle is a blessing, that the people who face the most struggle, who carry the heaviest burdens, who find themselves weighed down, or those who would seem by any other measurement to be considered unlucky are the ones who are the most blessed. . .  and then I found a quote that said, “ I would say that I’ve been lucky, being blessed and not really ever giving up.” If being blessed is about being lucky, then why would you ever need to quit. That one seemed to combine the two, the luck and the struggle.

The idea of being blessed is kinda like a lot of other things, people see them very differently. . . everyone has a different view. . . I think it is kinda like love, there are people who say I love you all the time, and then there are others who never say it, those who throw the words around without much care, and then others who are almost intimidated by the word. . . so too saying I’m blessed is like that, you have people who if you ask how they are doing, instead of saying an empty “fine” like most people, they say without batting an eye, “I’m blessed” and then others who would never phrase it like that and would be uncomfortable talking like that. People sometimes say, Have a blessed day. . . but others never would, or are again uncomfortable about such phrases.

In ancient times there were specific notions in the world about blessings. . . they were connected to the polytheistic notions of gods. . . to be blessed meant that you had a god who was on your side. . . and blessed you with rewards. . . there was a system in place of sacrifices and rituals done by the one who wants the blessing, to the god who bestows the blessing. . . and many times the effects of the blessings were visible. . . success was a blessing. You would know or say that “he is truly blessed” because he was victorious. He was a winner, winners are blessed and those who are not winners, must not be. . . but these notions of visible blessedness begin to change, and are challenged way before Jesus’ time. . . two examples from different cultures in two different parts of the world, and interesting that they come from about the same time. . . one is the death of Socrates and the other is from an old Chinese anecdote about a lost horse. . .

Let’s talk about Socrates first, for those of you who don’t know the story, Socrates, the great philosopher and teacher of Plato, was accused by the city of Athens of blaspheming and corrupting the young. . . he knows he is innocent, but decides that he will not speak in his own defense. . . so he is condemned to die by the tribunal. . . but he says as he is heading to die that death is not a bad thing. . . he says the oracle that he has inside of him, what we might call conscience, always warns him when he is doing anything even remotely wrong, but at this, he is heading to death with a clear conscience, so it must not be wrong. . . death, wrongfully accused and sentenced to death, this would be considered the picture of unluckiness, unblessedness, but Socrates feels very much like he is blessed. . . could the loser be the blessed one and the winner not be?

The other story, from China goes like this:

A man who lived on the northern frontier of China was skilled in interpreting events. One day for no reason, his horse ran away to the nomads across the border. Everyone tried to console him, but his father said, "What makes you so sure this isn't a blessing?" Some months later his horse returned, bringing a splendid nomad stallion. Everyone congratulated him, but his father said, "What makes you so sure this isn't a disaster?" Their household was richer by a fine horse, which the son loved to ride. One day he fell and broke his hip. Everyone tried to console him, but his father said, "What makes you so sure this isn't a blessing?"

A year later the nomads came in force across the border, and every able-bodied man took his bow and went into battle. The Chinese frontiersmen lost nine of every ten men. Only because the son was lame did father and son survive to take care of each other. Truly, blessing turns to disaster, and disaster to blessing: the changes have no end, nor can the mystery be fathomed.

You see maybe it is that blessings and disasters are not so easy to understand and decipher. . .  enter Jesus speaking to the crowd.

It makes you wonder about the people assembled at the mount to hear Jesus talk. . . did they have the same feelings about blessings we do, and by the same I mean all different? Did they know, or feel that they were blessed, or did they have no notion of it because they certainly were most likely not the “winners” of society. And this is an important thing to look at. If you took all this religion stuff out of it, and looked at them with the most worldly eyes possible, I doubt many would say that this group assembled appeared to be the lucky winners. That is not the picture I get of the crowds assembled and flocking to Jesus. Did they consider themselves blessed already, and if so why would Jesus begin his sermon on the mount with this famous list of those whom he considers to be blessed. . . the poor in spirt, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted for righteousness sake. . . that is quite a list, and I don’t think this list would make the old Dave Lettermen Top 10 lists. . . and I left off the number one. . . here it is Paul, the number one person most blessed. . . .drum roll. . . when you are reviled, persecuted, and when people utter all kinds of evil against you, falsely on my account” Yes, yes, yes. . . no that doesn’t sound like blessings, it doesn’t sound like luck, it doesn’t sound like it would be good at all, but there is Jesus turning the world upside down again.

What does it mean to be blessed if that is the number one answer? And why would Jesus be saying this to the crowd there assembled? What is the effect of this rhetorical strategy? Why start the most aggressive, and I mean aggressive in terms of high social ethical teaching, why start the most aggressive sermon of all time with a list like this? What does it do, you know, other than turning the world upside down, and claiming that the blessing is the opposite of what you would naturally think? Or is it exactly that, is that exactly the point. . . is he saying to them, brace yourself, for you to live out the words that I am going to teach you, the lessons I’m going to teach you are going to need to understand that the world is completely turned upside down from what you think. Because look at the list of things that Jesus is going to go on in this sermon and talk about. . . . you ever do a quick outline of the sermon on the mount? Let’s try it:

So after these so called beautitudes, the world turned upside down list of those who are blessed. . . Jesus goes on to talk about

The Salt of the Earth and those whose salt has lost it saltiness, being trodden underfoot

Them being the light of the world, the city on a hill, that their light needs to shine

That he has not come to abolish the Law, that anyone teaching the abolition of the law shall be at the bottom. . . . that righteousness exceeding the scribes and Pharisees is needed to enter the kingdom of heaven

That not only should you not kill, you shouldn’t get angry

To be reconciled to  your brother immedieately before anything else

To make friends with your accuser

To not just not commit adultery, but to not look at a woman lustfully

That you should pluck out your right eye lest it cause you to sin

That divorce and adultery are one in the same

To not swear oaths, rather just stand on your word

To not take an eye for an eye but to turn the other cheek, to give your coat as well, to go the extra mile

To love your enemies. . . .

To be perfect

To give alms in secret

To pray in secret. . . . directly to your father

To fast joyfully

To not lay up treasures on earth

To keep your eye sound and on the light lest you fall into darkness

To not serve two masters

To not be anxious or worry because God feeds the birds and clothes the lilies with wondrous beauty

Don’t Judge, don’t see the speck in your brothers eye while missing the plank in your own

To not profane the holy

To ask, and keep asking

To Seek and keep seeking

To knock and keep knocking. . . .

That there is a narrow gate

That there are false prophets

That it is easy to deceive yourself

That there are many hearers, but not many doers. . .

And that all of this was taught as if he was one who had authority. . . So yeah with an ethical system like that, all of the rules of the world must be completely turned upside down, rewriting the understanding of what it means to be blessed. . . does it mean to have God with you is to be blessed, and if so could anything separate you from it. . . could any of the rules of the world separate you? Could any description of winning and losing define it?

Then I saw a quote from Dracula of all places that said, “How blessed are some people whose lives have no fears, no dreads; to whom sleep comes nightly and brings nothing but sweet dreams.” And I thought how interesting. . . is that my definition of blessed. I can see the wisdom in it surely, but then I was thinking of my niece, and the struggles she went through a couple years ago, and how her families definition of blessed was changed, stretched, challenged, you name it. . . and I wrote this poem.

for Gabrielle

There are places where the water touches land,

Where the land, peaceful and solid, does stand,

And out in the water, the ripples on the surface flow,

But lurking just beneath do unseen currents go,

And since we are to those unknown a stranger,

We cannot help but feel a sense of danger,

And some would flee and choose to never go in,

To never venture even just one little toe in.

Others of course prefer to run and dive,

For it is in danger they feel the most alive.

They in their running don’t even see the divide,

Never take a minute to see the edging tide,

And so never know the feeling of hesitation,

The paralysis attached to idle contemplation.

But me, I've simply stood there on that ledge

Preferring the known side of the edge,

I do not dive, nor do I flee.

Somehow, here, it seems, I'm called to be,

To sit and ponder the here and there,

On the sidelines, offering inactive prayer,

Content to simply sympathize and give

My watch o'er others as they live:

Shedding a tear for him, a cringe for her,

As the waves arise out of the currents' stir.

But sometimes, while standing there on the side,

A wave can rise beyond the tide,

And what was safe, secure, dry land

Has been overtaken by another's hand.

This very thing happened once to me,

And before I got a chance to disagree

The hand had pulled me out to sea,

And fear looms large in the water's deep,

Like a nightmare produces restless sleep,

And what was left for my soul to keep,

After unwillingly taking faith's final leap?

For what else did I have to grasp

Than the stranger's hand around me clasp'd?

And just whose hand took me from my place,

My safe, controlled, and comfortable space,

And now has me floating through the danger,

That unknown, invisible, frightening stranger?

It couldn't be God. He's supposed to be good,

And good is being safe, where I securely stood,

Not risking my sanity, nor life, nor limb

In a real life version of sink or swim.

What kind of God would bring me here

Where I am floundering in doubt and fear,

Wondering if anything I'd been told was true

About Jesus Christ, or Love, or You?

And with each new crash and pounding wave,

The shadowy threat from the beaconing grave,

I question everything I thought I knew,

And so have no clue of what to do,

My arms flail and my legs reach down

To find some solid piece of ground,

But nothing firm do I feel or find,

No respite for my desperate, seeking mind,

No place anywhere to rest my soul,

No firm foundation within my control.

It's then my despair did deep descend

But just as I thought I'd reached my end,

I came to know a different truth,

Beyond the fairy tales of my youth,

A truth that isn't comfortable and nice

But is always willing to pay the price,

Not standing on the sidelines from afar

Bright, but as distant as the farthest star,

But gave it all up to live with us here,

To share our pain, to experience our fear,

And still was willing to pay the cost,

Nailed high to die upon the cross.

I remembered then that he calmed the sea

Could he still do the same for me?

Could it have been his hand after all

That he didn't really ever let me fall,

That I was safe there in his hand,

Despite being taken from the sand,

That though I didn't have control,

He stilled cared deeply about my soul,

And never ever did forsake me

Though from my comfort he did take me?

Eventually calm was restored. I was back on land.

On my own two feet it seemed I could stand,

But I learned of strength I never had known.

Through the trial, I somehow had changed and grown.

I no longer was paralyzed by worry and doubt,

For he pulled me into the sea and delivered me out.

There was nothing to fear and hold on tight to,

For He's Lord of the darkness and Lord of the light, too,

He's Lord of the land and He's Lord of the waves,

For He's the Lord who creates, sustains, and saves,

There just is no place apart from His grace

No trouble that causes Him to hide His face,

No problem, no mess, no danger too large

To make me doubt that He is always in charge.

No, I no longer need to feel secure

In the safe, controlled, comfort of the shore,

For I've now survived the depth of the sea,

Because He never ever abandoned me.

If being blessed is knowing that you are in the hand of God, cared for, and loved beyond all understanding, it would change the way you saw the water’s edge. . . may we all come to be blessed enough, by any means necessary, to come to know that crucial truth. . . . amen.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Arsenic (Only One Lie)


Only one lie
Something about thou and surely die
Casts is into doubt
And replaces it with seems
A lie once let out
Merges real and dreams
Leaving no way to answer why
Only one lie

Monday, January 23, 2017

Go Fish

Go Fish
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
January 22, 2017
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Matthew 4: 12-23

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.

12Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. 13He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: 15“Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— 16the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” 17From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
18As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 19And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” 20Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
23Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

So at this point in the Gospel of Matthew, the wise men have come and left, Joseph and Mary ran away to Egypt to avoid Herod, and then they returned to Nazareth, Jesus came to age and was Baptized by John in the Jordan river, and then directly from his baptism he headed out into the wilderness to fast, faced the devil and his temptations, and now has wasted no time, beginning his ministry by calling his disciples to follow him. So out on the sea of Galilee Jesus walk is walking by, and he calls to some fishermen, Simon and Andrew. .  . and he says follow me, I will make you fishers of men, and then it was born. The idea of discipleship and then this metaphor about fishing for people. What does it mean that as disciples we are to be fishing for people. Is it that we are to lure people into the church? Is that what it is all about? I’ve seen the church signs, and I’m sure you have, too, the ones that say, ‘gone fishing, we hook’em and Jesus cleans’ em” which is based on that simple idea. . . or as I’ve had conversation with many church people about using this very verse to describe the basis of discipleship, as evangelism, going out and finding people and bringing them into the church. . . and the definition of success then for a church is to be a vibrant, growing, healthy enterprise. . . but is that what is going on here? Because that seems to be an easy understanding of the metaphor, and the one most commonly accepted, but I can’t help but think that there is more to fishing than just catching fish because my Dad has said that to me before. . . well do you like to fish, or do you like to catch fish, because there is a difference. . . could it be that some of the best days of fishing don’t feature a single bite, or that fish are caught, but none are cleaned and fried up for breakfast, or that there was a fish, and a fight, and that fight didn’t result in a trophy, but instead a broken line. . . let’s look at fishing a little bit, this morning, and seek to send our hook into the deeper waters and see what turns up. . . Let me start here, listen to this:
He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. In the first forty days a boy had been with him. But after forty days without a fish the boy’s parents had told him that the old man was now definitely and finally salao, which is the worst form of unlucky, and the boy had gone at their orders in another boat which caught three good fish the first week. It made the boy sad to see the old man come in each day with his skiff empty and he always went down to help him carry either the coiled lines or the gaff and harpoon and the sail that was furled around the mast. The sail was patched with flour sacks and, furled, it looked like the flag of permanent defeat.
The old man was thin and gaunt with deep wrinkles in the back of his neck. The brown blotches of the benevolent skin cancer the sun brings from its reflection on the tropic sea were on his cheeks. The blotches ran well down the sides of his face and his hands had the deep-creased scars from handling heavy fish on the cords. But none of these scars were fresh. They were as old as erosions in a fishless desert.
Everything about him was old except his eyes and they were the same color as the sea and were cheerful and undefeated.
                                   ~ from The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

How old are we? How long have we been fishing? Almost 2000 years, right being, fishers of men? Or us here, in Gordonsville, since 1845, that’s 172 years of fishing. . . are there connections between this Old Man, Santiago, from Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea and ourselves? Are we old and wrinkled, with great lines of experience, great cancers of year being out in the sun, thin and gaunt, blistered and scarred, and above all unlucky? Do we sometimes feel our age, and has the world given us up for past our prime, sent their kids instead to the newer models of church, simple and easy, new equipment, updated simplified messages, starbucks and guitars and drums, because they seem to have all the luck. . . Hemingway tells us that everything about Santiago is old, that is except his eyes which were the same color as the sea, cheerful and undefeated. . . everything about this church is old, except for our hearts which are the same color as the blood of Christ on which our foundation lies, leaving us forever cheerful and undefeated, too. Undefeated, for we are still fishing. . .
And he says. . . man is not made for defeat, a man can be destroyed but not defeated. . .
Do we like to catch fish or do we like to fish? Because there is much about fishing that is not catching fish, and to some extent has nothing to do with catching fish. . . and many of the stories about fishing have to do with the great draughts of fishing. . . like the disciples whose nets are empty, and Jesus comes by and fills them. . . fish on the other side of the boat. . . this wouldn’t resonate so much with us unless we knew what it was like to fish on the wrong side of the boat and not catch anything. . . or remember the movie, “The Perfect Storm” where George Clooney is a captain who used to be able to bring in the fish, but lately hasn’t had the luck. . . but this is going to be the difference. . . so they head out, earlier than they had planned, for the big score, going further than they have before, further than is safe, and of course out farther, deeper, beyond the normal waters, find the fish, but then the ice machine breaks and they need to head back or risk losing all the fish, but then the storm, the perfect storm, is directly between them and home. . . they don’t make it. . . it is such a part about fishing to have periods of no luck. . . there is another story, this one from the 1001 Arabian Nights, called the “Fisherman and the Jinni” the fisherman, like Santiago, the Old man, and like the captain in the Perfect Storm hasn’t caught fish in many days. . . he prays to Allah, fishes once, nothing, prays again, fishes again, nothing, prays a third time, casts that final third time, this time saying it will be his last, that he will quit, and he feels something, and hauls it in, but it is not a fish, but rather a lamp, he rubs it and out pops the Jinni, saying “There is no God but Allah and Solomon is his prophet,” which of course is the main pillar of Islam, except Solomon is in the place of Mohammad, you see the Jinni and the lamp is like a time capsule, and the story is claiming that Islam is not a new religion, but a new understanding of an older one, that if the Jinni was put in the bottle at another time, the Jinni would have come out saying, “there is no God but Allah and David is his prophet, or Moses, or Abraham, or even Jesus. . . but you can see that this idea of the unlucky fishermen transcends culture. . .  there are even superstitions around it. . . . I remember being out fishing and having no luck, and dad telling me that I must not be holding my mouth right, or that I was letting my hind foot slip. . . Fishing is a pastime fraught with failure. Is discipleship as well. . . are there times of plenty and times when it doesn’t matter what you do, what bait you use, how you hold your mouth or how slippery the footing is under your so called hind foot. . . are there times when the disciples of the Bible are told to “shake the dust off their feet” and move on? Depressing, but again, do you like to fish or do you like to catch fish? What is it all about?
Another fishing book has to do with this connection between fishing and life, and may just give us another insight. . .
In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing. We lived at the junction of great trout rivers in western Montana, and our father was a Presbyterian minister and a fly fisherman who tied his own flies and taught others. He told us about Christ's disciples being fishermen, and we were left to assume, as my brother and I did, that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly fishermen and that John, the favorite, was a dry-fly fisherman.
It is true that one day a week was given over wholly to religion. On Sunday mornings my brother, Paul, and I went to Sunday school and then to "morning services" to hear our father preach and in the evenings to Christian Endeavor and afterwards to "evening services" to hear our father preach again. In between on Sunday afternoons we had to study The Westminster Shorter Catechism for an hour and then recite before we could walk the hills with him while he unwound between services. But he never asked us more than the first question in the catechism, "What is the chief end of man?" And we answered together so one of us could carry on if the other forgot, "Man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever." This always seemed to satisfy him, as indeed such a beautiful answer should have, and besides he was anxious to be on the hills where he could restore his soul and be filled again to overflowing for the evening sermon. His chief way of recharging himself was to recite to us from the sermon that was coming, enriched here and there with selections from the most successful passages of his morning sermon.
Even so, in a typical week of our childhood Paul and I probably received as many hours of instruction in fly fishing as we did in all other spiritual matters.
After my brother and I became good fishermen, we realized that our father was not a great fly caster, but he was accurate and stylish and wore a glove on his casting hand. As he buttoned his glove in preparation to giving us a lesson, he would say, "It is an art that is performed on a four-count rhythm between ten and two o'clock."
As a Scot and a Presbyterian, my father believed that man by nature was a mess and had fallen from an original state of grace. Somehow, I early developed the notion that he had done this by falling from a tree. As for my father, I never knew whether he believed God was a mathematician but he certainly believed God could count and that only by picking up God's rhythms were we able to regain power and beauty. Unlike many Presbyterians, he often used the word "beautiful."  . . .
Well, until man is redeemed he will always take a fly rod too far back, just as natural man always overswings with an ax or golf club and loses all his power somewhere in the air: only with a rod it's worse, because the fly often comes so far back it gets caught behind in a bush or rock. When my father said it was an art that ended at two o'clock, he often added, "closer to ten than to two," meaning that the rod should be taken back only slightly farther than overhead (straight overhead being twelve o'clock). . . .
The four-count rhythm, of course, is functional. The one count takes the line, leader, and fly off the water; the two count tosses them seemingly straight into the sky; the three count was my father's way of saying that at the top the leader and fly have to be given a little beat of time to get behind the line as it is starting forward; the four count means put on the power and throw the line into the rod until you reach ten o'clock—then check-cast, let the fly and leader get ahead of the line, and coast to a soft and perfect landing. Power comes not from power everywhere, but from knowing where to put it on. "Remember," as my father kept saying, "it is an art that is performed on a four-count rhythm between ten and two o'clock."
My father was very sure about certain matters pertaining to the universe. To him, all good things—trout as well as eternal salvation—come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy.
                   ~ from Norman MacLean's A River Runs through It

Now in that description theology and fishing are wrapped around each other so beautifully that there are many entrances and exits, and points of interest  you could point to, but I am drawn to the end. . . “grace comes by art and art does not come easy” and he says that after describing a process of becoming connected to the “rhythms” the natural god made rhythms of the universe. . . and also man’s own state of being a complete mess. . . I’ve fly fished, and I’ve turned the line into a rats nest, and I’ve caught the tree branches behind me, and I’ve spent more time untangling knots then fishing, but then again, I wouldn’t trade any of it. . . If the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever, there may be more to this fishers of men stuff than just bringing in folks to church. . .
There is a oneness and a connectedness between the person and the stream, the rod and the fish, the connectedness of it all. . . . and of course one cannot really hope to catch much fish standing on the shore. . . at least not as a fly fisher. . . wading out in the stream is a part of it all. . . and of course that fits the metaphor for entering into the living waters, the Jordan river, to Wade in the Water, children, waiting for God to trouble that water. . . I think of this story:
He stepped into the stream. It was a shock. His trousers clung tight to his legs.   His shoes felt the gravel. The water was a rising cold shock.      
Rushing, the current sucked against his legs. Where he stepped in, the water   was over his knees. He waded with the current. The gravel slipt under his   shoes. He looked down at the swirl of water below each leg and tipped up the   bottle to get a grasshopper.      The first grasshopper gave a jump in the neck of the bottle and went out into   the water. He was sucked under in the whirl by Nick's right leg and came to   the surface a little way down stream. He floated rapidly, kicking. In a quick   circle, breaking the smooth surface of the water, he disappeared. A trout had   taken him.      
Another hopper poked his face out of the bottle. His antennas wavered.  He   was getting his front legs out of the bottle to jump. Nick took him by the   head and held him while he threaded the slim hook under his chin, down   through his thorax and into the last segments of his abdomen. The   grasshopper took hold of the hook with his front feet, spitting tobacco juice   on it. Nick dropped him into the water.      
Holding the rod in his right hand he let out line against the pull of the   grasshopper in the current. He stripped off line from the reel with his left hand   and let it run free. He could see the hopper in the little waves of the current. It   went out of sight.      
There was a tug on the line. Nick pulled against the taut line. It was his first   strike. Holding the now living rod across the current, he hauled in the line   with his left hand. The rod bent in jerks, the trout pulling against the   current. Nick knew it was a small one. He lifted the rod straight up in the air.   It bowed with the pull.      
He saw the trout in the water jerking with his head and body against the   shifting tangent of the line in the stream.      
Nick took the line in his left hand and pulled the trout, thumping tiredly   against the current, to the surface. His back was mottled the clear, water-over-   gravel color, his side flashing in the sun. The rod under his right arm, Nick   stooped, dipping his right hand into the current. He held the trout, never still,   with his moist right hand, while he unhooked the barb from his mouth, then   dropped him back into the stream.      - from Hemingway;s "Big Two-Hearted River, part 2"

That story of course being Hemingway’s “Two-Hearted River” about the power of fishing to calm the unnamed pain of his post war world. . .  there is a healing piece to fishing as well. , Could the fishing of men business be about the disciples themselves as much as those men who are to be caught?
I have my own fishing story as well, a poem that I wrote last summer that has found its way into my latest collection of Poem’s Life Matters, this poem entitled “Three Old Fishermen” describes a pelican fishing out on the eastern horizon as the sun sets behind us, and the second fishermen is a man, seated by the shore with his rod stationary in the sand. . . and then the third fishermen is only suggested. Let me read that: “Three Old Fishermen”
They were both fishing in the evening as the sun set to my back,
And I watched, trying to figure out for myself who was the more
Successful, that is if the definition of fishing success is actually
Catching fish because from my experience it may not be the case.
I never saw either catch any fish, though the pelican could have,
Being so far away, certainly been packing them away in his beak,
For it was made for him special to hold more than his belly can,
But I couldn’t see, and so, set my mind imagining his failure in
Tandem with the man to my right. I watched him for hours, sitting,
Beer in hand, line extended out into the surf, waiting, so patiently
For exactly zero bites. Though I didn’t know for sure, I imagine,
He was so patient because the rest of the world moved so fast,
This extended moment was a break from it all, to sit, with nothing
More to do, than to get to sit and wait, and that somehow the reel
And rod made it active enough to be considered doing something.
He couldn’t simply say, “Hey Honey, I’m going to the beach to do
Nothing,” and it had been years since heading to the beach to drink
Beer (as the only attraction) was an acceptable pastime, and fishing,
Therefore, was somehow something enough, and so there he was
Sitting and waiting. In the time I watched him, I never saw him cast,
Nor did I ever see him reel. In fact, I never saw him raise the rod,
Jiggle the line, or bring in the slack enough to check for a bite. No,
He just sat, and waited, taking occasional sips. He didn’t even drink
Aggressively, but rather seemed to wait for that, too, with no need
To rush the buzz. Like an Old Bull, sauntering slowly down a shady
Hill, knowing that what he sought awaited, so he must seek other fruit
Than fish. I wonder if the pelican shares such silly notions, for his
Fishing ritual, is at least as ancient as ours, if not more. Could he,
This avian symbol of insentient freedom, fish to escape, to pass time,
To rewind, to clear his mind, to seek and find, something sublime,
Like we do? His inherited ritual is much more active, gliding, this way,
Then that, just above surface of the water, when something flashing
Beneath, catches his eye, just enough, and he rises up, just enough.
He gets that perfect angle, and dives, disappearing for a moment,
A fish for a split second, before emerging back to the surface, floating,
Wings tucked, like a duck, perfectly still. Is there something to turning
Into what you want to catch, for a moment? We don’t do that, instead
We send our surrogate to lure our prey, a little wiggly worm, or squid,
Or some plastic fish replica, shiny and bright enough to hide a hook.
I wish I could have seen whether he hid some fish in his beak because
Then I would prove my preconceptions about birds, like other animal
Species, that they do not fish for fun, but for food. As fun as it looks,
The flying and the diving, alone and part of a V, it’s necessary to life,
And tied directly to surviving. Do we feel that when we fish, despite
The sport, the escape, or is the escape just that, an escape from life’s
Imposters, for a moment of the real? I don’t think my fisherman, beer
In hand, was seeking such things, but I was—when I headed to the beach
As the sun was sinking behind me, facing my shadow stretching ahead,
Watching a bird and a man fish, seeing with much more than my eyes,
Allowing my imagination to soar, to sit, to dive and to ponder—seeking
A sense of the sublime, and found it in a connected empathetic moment
Of place in my mind, and I will take it with me the next time I go fishing.

The first two fishermen are obvious, the pelican and the man on the beach, and you may have guessed that I, the poet, the voice of the poem, am the third, and that I was seeking a sense of the sublime, a sense of truth, an insight into the world, God, the way it all comes together, and I found it in what I call an “empathetic moment,” in other words a moment when I look outside of my own pain, struggle, point of view, and think, feel, notice, and seek to understand someone else’s. . . . and I found in the Pelican’s fishing, an insight into our call to be “Fishers of Men,” and how it is connected to this idea of empathy. The pelican dives into the water, and becomes a fish, if only for a moment, rather than sending out his surrogate to lure, instead he goes into the water, becomes like a fish, tries to be fish, feel what it is like to be a fish, before catching a fish, and that his fishing is necessary for our survival. . . is it possible that our call to be fishers of men is also necessary to our survival, not because we catch fish, but that the idea of fishing sustains us, and is connected uniquely to what it means to be human. . . is this what Santiago knows regardless of the results? Is this what the unique 4 count rhythm between 10 and 2 is, the art that does not come easy but is inextricable connected to grace? Is this what the healing action of the “Big Two Hearted River” points to. . . and if so, fishing is connected in this way to life, and that fishing requires becoming the other, rather than merely sending a surrogate to lure in your stead, isn’t this exactly what Jesus does, by becoming one of us to save us. . . it would then stand to reason that the work of his disciples would be no different. . . may we never seek a cheaper definition. . . amen.