Monday, November 13, 2017

Eternal Hope Springs

"Eternal Hope Springs"
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
November 5, 2017
at Bethany Presbyterian Church, Zuni, Virginia
Romans 12:12
Revelation 19: 1-10
Psalm 62: 1-8

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

Today, let’s just start with it. We’ve been looking at it for many weeks now. Here are the Marks of a True Christian according to Paul, in Romans 12: 9-21.

9 Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

So if you are keeping score at home, you’ll know that this morning our line from the "Marks of a true Christian" is simply Romans 12:12a "Rejoice in Hope." Since last week we talked about serving the Lord, and the difficulties that service entails, especially when you look at all the trials endured by the heroes of the Old Testament, and even Jesus and then the disciples in the New, but this week we find ourselves talking about the idea of Hope and that we are to rejoice in it.
Hope is an interesting topic, and one that I have taken alot of time thinking about this week, one we’ll revisit in just a few weeks, when of the four Advent Candles, the first is the Candle of Hope, but do you ever think about what hope is, whether it's good or not, and whether it is possible to rejoice in it. I chose a passage from Revelation to get at hope, knowing that for some reason it's always a little bit intimidating to preach from Revelation. There is so much stuff in it that sounds a little bit crazy, what with the trumpets and the seals and the numerology, and the dragons, and there are all kinds of different ways that people interpret it and use it, and frankly there is a great history of irresponsible misuse of it. But all in all the message of Revelation is primarily and at heart completely one of hope and bears witness to that hope, and no other passage in the entirety of the book represents a witness of hope more than this one I am about to read, this is the famous Hallelujah scene from the beginning of chapter 19.
A few weeks ago, the Session had the pleasure of getting to chat with Rev. Dr. Brian Blount, who is a native of Smithfield, President, of my seminary, Union Presbyterian in Richmond, and possibly the leading scholar in the study of the book of Revelation. Through the years I've had the opportunity to hear him preach and lecture on this very passage often, and I've enjoyed his take, and his description of this scene as a major victory party, celebrating an end to oppression, celebrated by a people who have been oppressed for a long time. The early Christians, and Jews as well had found themselves in a period where persecution by the Roman Empire had grown fierce again, and were looking for things in the world that could give them hope, they needed hope, they needed to find a way to get through the days and remain faithful. Ever since the fall of the Kingdom of Israel, the area of Palestine had been controlled by a series of foreign empires. First the Assyrians, then the Babylonians, then it was the Persians, then the Macedonians, then the Ptolemies, then the Seleucids , and finally by the time of Christ, Rome. Much like the book of Daniel and other works written within the history of being a subjected people, the book of Revelation is from the genre, from the Greek word, apokolypsis, which means secret teachings, or disclosure, manifestation, revelation. These were words and books of hope written to inspire the people to believe in a future state where things would be put right, where the rulers of the day would be thwarted, the power structures replaced, and righteousness restored. In other words, a Revelation of the fact that God is very much in control. It was easy for the Christians in the first century to look around them and think there must be something more than this, there must be something better than this, God is better than this, and God is in control, and God will set things right, we believe this, and it gives us hope. The passage that I selected this morning to get at the idea of rejoicing in hope is very much a victory celebration over the evils of the world. Evils that to the Christians of the first century were certainly apparent to them and surrounded them in every way, and the victory is complete, and the host of heaven sing an earth shattering, hell destroying, hallelujah. Probably ten years ago now I heard this passage preached at the Massanetta Springs Bible and Music Conference, yes by Brian Blount, and the anthem that accompanied the scripture reading and the sermon was the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel's "Messiah" sung by a huge mixed choir of all the musicians and singers that had been there that week. It was truly moving music because it put you in that place. You felt like they had almost accomplished the sound that the writer John of Patmos was describing in court of heaven. So have that song going through your head while I read: Revelation 19: 1-10: 

After this I heard what seemed to be the loud voice of a great multitude in heaven, saying,
Salvation and glory and power to our God,
2     for his judgments are true and just;
he has judged the great whore
who corrupted the earth with her fornication,
and he has avenged on her the blood of his servants.” 
3     Once more they said,
The smoke goes up from her forever and ever.”
4     And the twenty-four elders and the four living creatures fell down and worshiped God who is seated on the throne, saying,
“Amen. Hallelujah!”
And from the throne came a voice saying,
“Praise our God,
all you his servants,
and all who fear him,
small and great.”
6     Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the sound of many waters and like the sound of mighty thunderpeals, crying out,
For the Lord our God
the Almighty reigns.
7     Let us rejoice and exult
and give him the glory,
for the marriage of the Lamb has come,
and his bride has made herself ready;
8     to her it has been granted to be clothed
with fine linen, bright and pure”—
for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.
And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” And he said to me, “These are true words of God.” 10Then I fell down at his feet to worship him, but he said to me, “You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your comrades who hold the testimony of Jesus. Worship God! For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.”[1] 

This is the word of the Lord, thanks be to God. Look at this celebration. It is celebrating the idea that God is more powerful than things, all things. He's more powerful than evil, more powerful than war, more powerful than enemies, more powerful than hatred, more powerful than injustice, more powerful than genocide, more powerful than oppression, more powerful than slavery, more powerful than a "bad day", more powerful than a petty disagreement, more powerful than a broken relationship, more powerful than doubt, more powerful than sin, more powerful than our minor disobedience, more powerful than our major disobedience, more powerful than the outcome of some election, more powerful than negative adds, more powerful than cynicism, more powerful than any clear and present danger that we face, and that very fact is cause to celebrate. And not just is God more powerful, God is also good, all the time, beyond time into the infinite, the beginning and the end, and so hope springs in the eternal, the eternity of God.
So we ask ourselves, why not now? Why all this injustice now? Why all this pain now? These earthquakes, this disease, this discord, and hatred and war. Why wait? Why doesn't God just fix it all now if He can? Many agnostics and atheists ask these questions, and speak ardently that if God exists, God is either a monster or is completely ineffective, for to let so much pain exist in the world, and therefore their shouts at God are not hallelujah. I do not hope to preach today as to why, because I do not know the answers of these questions, but I believe part of our comfort is found in the today's idea from the Marks of a Christian. "Rejoice in hope."
It's funny to me to see rejoice in hope. It is so alien to our world to do so. We don't rejoice in hope; we rejoice in attaining things, in victories, in gold medals won, and challenges accomplished, and bottom lines. Those are the things we tend to rejoice in, but how fleeting are the trophies, how fleeting are the accomplishments? How much more inspiring and powerful is it to strive, and having striven felt the extra push of force that hope gives? I'll get back to that because there is something of truth in that, but we aren't ready yet. . .
***Ha ha got you hoping? Man I sure hope I can pull this off? Are you hoping with me? I hope so***
If you look at the prayer of preparation, you'll see the famous line: hope springs eternal. I chose the passage, coming from one of my favorite poems, Alexander Pope's "Essay on Man." What Pope is trying to accomplish in the poem is to describe the human condition. The poem has four parts, and the first part, from which this passage comes, he is trying to describe the way the world works, and in his words to "justify the ways of God to man," which is one of the great poetic challenges taken up by poets since the beginning of time from the writer of Job, to the psalmist, to Homer, to Shelley, Milton, Keats, all of them, the greats. He takes a similar spin on it, to the Book of Job, and is reflecting his time, because he questions whether man is in any position, any moral place to question God. He wonders how can you question the maker of you? How can you wish for more than what is? Is it the place of the creature to question the actuality and the quality of the creation? It is a cool poem placing the perfection and the sovereignty of God at the forefront of his understanding of the world, concluding the first section with the poem with some of my favorite turns of a phrase:
All nature is but art, unknown to thee;
All chance, direction, which thou canst not see;
All discord, harmony not understood;
All partial evil, universal good:
And, spite of pride in erring reason's spite,
One truth is clear, whatever is, is right.

In other words, Pope puts the sovereignty of God at a premium, first and foremost in his view of the world and uses that as the lens to view and judge the way the world operates, made perfect by God, but now let's take a look at the section including the words "hope springs eternal" because it is here where he talks about how hope, and hoping is a crucial part of the human condition, as humans were created by God. I'll begin and include a few lines I left out of the bulletin for reasons of space:

Heaven from all creatures hides the book of Fate,
All but the page prescribed, their present state:
From brutes what men, from men what spirits know:
Or who could suffer being here below?
The lamb thy riot dooms to bleed to-day,
Had he thy reason, would he skip and play?
Pleased to the last, he crops the flowery food,
And licks the hand just raised to shed his blood.
Oh, blindness to the future! kindly given,
That each may fill the circle, marked by Heaven:
Who sees with equal eye, as God of all,
A hero perish, or a sparrow fall,
Atoms or systems into ruin hurled,
And now a bubble burst, and now a world.
Hope humbly, then; with trembling pinions soar;
Wait the great teacher Death; and God adore.
What future bliss, He gives not thee to know,
But gives that hope to be thy blessing now.
Hope springs eternal in the human breast:
Man never is, but always to be blest:
The soul, uneasy and confined from home,
Rests and expatiates in a life to come.

 Pope suggests that hoping is part of our nature, that we were created to be hopeful, and that there must be some driving purpose to it, in his words confined from home, perhaps driving back to home. There must be some purpose to which he suggests we should not question. Paul takes it one step further, not just to not question, that we are created hoping, but to rejoice in it. To be thankful for our capacity to hope and rejoice, believing that the future blessings will be incredible.
Hope is an interesting phenomenon in other faith systems. It is not found in the eastern religions and philosophies of India and China at all and to the pagan Greeks, hope was kind of a mixed bag. As the myth of Pandora goes, when her curiosity compels her to open the box, out come all of the evils of the world, one by one and personified, but too, hiding in the bottom of the box, out pops hope. Hope enters into the world along with the evils according to that ancient Greek story, which shows their world view. Does this mean they saw hope as a piece of the evil, or our only positive in a world now fraught with evil.
How do you view hope? I've spoken often in the last few weeks about cynicism, that most ancient and hopeless of Greek philosophies, many in the world of today would say that hope is foolish, or misguided, We say, I don’t want to get your hopes up. . . or others might say hope is a tool that those of great power, intelligence, and influence use to control those who are hopelessly gullible, dimwitted, and weak. Someone intelligent could never be controlled in such a way. I can see how that would be and could be true. False hopes, or placing  your hope in something that cannot deliver would certainly leave you out on a ledge, looking foolish, that is why hope is tied to faith, and love, those spiritual gifts that Paul writes of in his first letter to the Christians at Corinth. Having faith in the truth, that God is all powerful as I opened with, and that the hallelujah passage gives witness and testimony of provides a hope that is not foolish, but if true the only possible source of hope.
Having hope in that truth can allow us to see our world in a different light, to see our place in the world in a different light, and to see our work in the world in a different life. It allows for the end to be taken care of, to hope for, to inspire us, to recharge us with ultimate drive and desire, infinitely ahead, allowing us to love in the present, rejoicing in the present, rejoicing in hope. I said earlier that trophies and accomplishments sometimes are fleeting at best or underwhelming at worst, anti-climatic might be the best word. There is so much build up that once it's all over and achieved there isn't much left, but life was lived in the achieving. Life is lived in the hope of achieving. There is something to the wisdom of creating human beings with an innate capacity to hope. It drives us, it moves us, it is us, it is life, and life is a gift to be lived, and a gift to be thankful for, and a gift to be rejoiced in, that when it is all over and we come face to face with the infinite, the hallelujahs burst forth from our inward parts with a loving chorus of praise for the amazing love and power that created each and every one of us, completely unique, with an infinite capacity for hope.
Truly my soul finds rest in God;
    my salvation comes from him.
Truly he is my rock and my salvation;
    he is my fortress, I will never be shaken.
How long will you assault me?
    Would all of you throw me down—
    this leaning wall, this tottering fence?
Surely they intend to topple me
    from my lofty place;
    they take delight in lies.
With their mouths they bless,
    but in their hearts they curse.[b]
Yes, my soul, find rest in God;
    my hope comes from him.
Truly he is my rock and my salvation;

    he is my fortress, I will not be shaken.
My salvation and my honor depend on God[c];
    he is my mighty rock, my refuge.
Trust in him at all times, you people;
    pour out your hearts to him,
    for God is our refuge.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Serving the Lord

"Serving the Lord"
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
November 5, 2017
at Bethany Presbyterian Church, Zuni, Virginia
Romans 12:11c
Deuteronomy 31: 1-8
Luke 9: 57-62

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

If we think back to last week, we talked about enthusiasm. It was about Zeal and being ardent in the spirit. We talked about how when you are being what you are, what you were made to be what you are called to be, then the energy it takes to just simply be whatever that is, is equal to the energy you have, and your cup is overflowing, it never runs out. . . and so there is the sense that we are each called to bring ourselves to the table, to not hold back, but to be all in. . .and that we wouldn’t necessarily then be doing what every one else is doing, not looking to mimic what other churches are doing, but instead find our own way that is right,  and that the rest would then take care of itself. But then came of course the inevitable question, “What then do we do?” And the answer comes quick on the heals of last week’s lesson with this one, right after “Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in the spirit,” closing out the verse is this week’s “Serve the Lord.” Which then is the answer, this is what we are to do. Simply, serve the Lord, but let’s take a quick look again at the entire picture, these according to Paul are the Marks of a Christian.

9 Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

So the answer to what we are to do, is to serve the Lord, and if you put that together with last week, the basis of our life, what we are created to do is exactly this. If we were to look at our Book of Confessions, the Book in our denomination that contains the conversations about what we believe, one of the things we find in there is the Catechisms of our Church, and the first question of the Catechism is what is the chief end of man? And the answer, “To glorify God and enjoy him forever. . .” we have a sense then that we glorify God when we serve him, and we also enjoy him in this service. . . but what is the enjoyment of serving God like? What does it mean to serve God? How is God served? How is God glorified through our service?
This week we celebrated and marked the 500th year anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation, and as children of the Reformation we look to scripture for answers to our questions like this. So in my study this week I started to think about, what are some of the Old Testament Models of service to the Lord? I could have chosen so many, but I went with Moses, having led the Israelites out of Bondage, has reached the end of his service. This is Deuteronomy 31: 1-8
31 Then Moses went out and spoke these words to all Israel: “I am now a hundred and twenty years old and I am no longer able to lead you. The Lord has said to me, ‘You shall not cross the Jordan.’ The Lord your God himself will cross over ahead of you. He will destroy these nations before you, and you will take possession of their land. Joshua also will cross over ahead of you, as the Lord said. And the Lord will do to them what he did to Sihon and Og, the kings of the Amorites, whom he destroyed along with their land. The Lord will deliver them to you, and you must do to them all that I have commanded you. Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.”
Then Moses summoned Joshua and said to him in the presence of all Israel, “Be strong and courageous, for you must go with this people into the land that the Lord swore to their ancestors to give them, and you must divide it among them as their inheritance. The Lord himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.”

So if we were to look at Moses as an example, we find the sense of serving the Lord is that you do God’s will, you set captives free, you stand up before the rulers and in God’s name defy them, and lead grumbling people into and then through the wilderness, and just when you are about to find the fulfillment of all your labors, you hand the job over to someone else to finish it. Hmmmm. . . .
Well maybe we can look at Jonah, he’s another servant of the Lord in the Old Testament. . . he runs away at first, because he doesn’t want to do it, but the reason he doesn’t want to do it is because God wants him to go to Ninevah and preach to them about repenting and turning to the Lord, or else. . . . but he knows that if he goes, they will repent, and then there will be no, or else. . . and this makes him mad. . . but he does it anyway, and he is right, the Lord relents, and Jonah is angry sitting in the shade.  . . hmmm.
Ezekiel serves and gets in hot water with Jezebel and Ahab. . . Daniel serves and finds himself in the Lion’s den, Shadrach Mesach and Abednego serve and they find themselves in a fiery furnace. . . Noah has to built a big boat and fill it with animals. . . then of course there is the man that God refers to as, “my servant Job” have you considered, “my servant Job” he asks. . .
You see what I mean there are a lot of different models and paths for servanthood that we find there, and many are challenging, to say the least. . . the very act of serving the Lord seems to be fraught with many different paths, and many different obstacles. . .
If we were to look at history there are many different understandings on what it means to serve the Lord. You can look in the Gospels and find Jesus embodying the idea of servanthood, healing the sick, feeding the multitudes, caring for the lowly, eating with outcasts, and of course going to the cross, bearing the cross himself, he even says to his disciples in the Gospel of Matthew 20: 25-28,  
But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 26 It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; 28 just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.

So we can see that Christ is an original model for this notion of service. The early church had some ideas about service, and if you look at all of Paul’s letters, including this one of the Romans, you can get a lot of different ideas of what it means to serve the Lord, many connected to serving those around you, serving your brothers and sisters in the faith, being united together, etc., and then there was another generation of Christians who was forced to face persecution at the hands of the Romans, and if you read the Book of Revelation you can see a view of service that was about witnessing, proclaiming the idea that Christ is Lord in a society where such things could cost you status, could cost you business, and in some cases could even cost you your life. But then eventually things change as the church has more success than it has ever had before because the church and the state gets combined when Constantine converts the Empire to a Christian one, and then being a Christian gets connected to serving the state, being a good citizen, etc. As the Roman Empire Falls and Kingdoms develop in Feudal Europe during the middle Ages, serving the Lord might be connected to serving your Lord if you are a peasant, it might have to do with being a good vassal, serving in the military if you are asked. . . during the Crusades, serving the Lord meant going to the Holy Land to fight the infidel Muslims. In the late Middle Ages serving the Lord took on many faces, the claim of tradition included things like indulgences, where serving the Lord somehow got connected to making payments to restore your soul back in the grace of God, but then during the Reformation serving the Lord took on new meanings, like studying the Bible, believing, having faith. Here in America even more meaning, perhaps serving the Lord meant having the right political views, attending church, wearing the right clothes to church, but also teaching Sunday School, feeding the poor, finding ways to help those in need through financial contribution, etc. If you study it closely, there are as many different ways of serving the church as there are people, and some are problematic and some are very noble, and why would that be. . . it is because of the Lord we serve, and the fallibility of human beings as servants. . . let’s look to our Gospel reading from this morning: Luke 9; 57-62
57 As they were walking along the road, a man said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.”
58 Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”
59 He said to another man, “Follow me.”
But he replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.”
60 Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”
61 Still another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say goodbye to my family.”
62 Jesus replied, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”

You see, one of the reasons serving the Lord looks so diverse is the very nature of our Lord. God in the Old Testament cannot be tied down. He is the God who is. . . the Hebrews believed that they could not even say His name because even a name trapped him too much. They couldn’t put him in a box, they couldn’t depict him in anything made by humans, he defied such things, and so since he is the God who created everything and cannot be nailed down into any one thing. . . serving Him takes on as many different modes as he does. . . and Christ  is the same, he says follow me, leave all behind and follow me, and do so right now, again the Lord we serve is a God on the move, and when given the chance to serve himself. . . he himself goes to the cross.
Serving a God like that then takes on a life of its own. . . and we are lucky enough to live in a time where we are free to serve him, individually and as we are created to because now, in 2017, we have mostly rid ourselves of the trappings of power, where we stand with only Christ as our intermediary between ourselves and God, where Church and State are mostly separated by a wall, where Christianity is not imposed on us by any state, and where we as individual followers of Christ need nor have anyone between us and the Lord to tell us what it means to serve him, yes that means even me, even Pastors, no, the question comes to us each again, what does it mean to serve the Lord when we are completely free as Christians, as Americans, as Presbyterians, as members of Bethany Presbyterian Church to do so? How can we get back to following the Lord, rather than all the Lords of this world?
One answer and maybe the most important is that we cannot trade back our freedom for something else. . . . even though it is in our nature and in our history to do so. We cannot flee from the danger of serving the Lord, we cannot cling to the safe, we cannot avoid the difficult questions seeking common answers. . . but instead each individually wrestle with what we are, and what we are called to do as servants of God. Because though we are all here together, each of us has a unique path, and so I cannot tell you exactly what your path is, though I can seek to help you find it, because just like we can learn from the great servants in the Bible, we can learn from history, and we can learn and help each other on our way. We can’t do for, and we cannot take the place of, but we can seek to discern together, and walk our own paths, side by side and parallel, for it is true that the Lord we serve has brought us each to this point.
I believe that serving the Lord takes on a 7 part pattern. . . and I’ve developed this by looking at the common threads between those who I think have effectively served the Lord in their lives, those characters I have seen in the Bible, those saints throughout history, whom I have admired, and the great saints that I have been blessed in my life to walk this Earth alongside. . . . and the beautiful thing about these 7 patterns is they are always occurring, constantly and repeatedly throughout our lives. . . they aren’t really stages that you go through once in life, but rather ones that you constantly find yourself in.
These are Humility, Discernment, Resolution, Perseverance, Fulfillment, Legacy, and Retirement. I want to take a minute to go through each of these, and say a little something about each one, and then walk through an example or two. . .
Humility is the point where you admit that you don’t know what to do, and you give up yourself. . . the idea of being a servant means that you are not doing things for your own benefit, nor your own purposes, but instead are aligning your purpose to what you are serving. . . so this unselfing is an important part of it. . . so many people who claim to be serving the Lord throughout history do not begin with this important piece. . . they hold on to themselves, and either do not have the staying power to finish the race, or corrupt the God’s purposes to achieve their own. . . I think of all those Medieval kings and Popes who used the name of Christianity to enrich and empower themselves at the expense of others. . . and we can still see this today. . . Humility says, it is not about me, but thee Oh God. . . and this is the crucial step. . . but the great thing about it, is there is the constant and recurring chance to start over if you go astray because realizing you are or have been wrong is . . . yes. . . humility. . . kinda like the Go space on the Monopoly board. . . you can always get back to that grab your $200 and start your way back around the board again.
So you are standing there in humility, and you ask the next question. . . what am I to do? This is called discernment. . . discernment as the question, who am I and what am I being called to do? Where do you go to find out? Since we begun with humility, the first thing we must do is ask, and ask anew, and ask again and again, seek and keep on seeking, ask and keep on asking, knock and keep on knocking. Never stop asking until you have a good idea of what you are supposed to do and be, and not just on the big full life scale, but in the little questions, remember these are patterns that are constantly repeating. Am I called to do this? Am I called to do that? What are these things? It may not be what you have always done, remember starting with Humility opens us up to whatever God is calling, whatever God is doing in and through our lives. Sometimes it is a major shift in what you may have thought about yourself previously. . . but alas God’s will is what is to be done. . .
And that brings us to the next step, which is Resolution. Having discerned what you are being called to the next step is to take it. To do it, to dive in, to go all in,  to commit yourself. . .
The next two often happen interchangeably and simultaneously and that is Perseverance and Fulfillment. . . .  . They go together because God gives us a little of both when we are serving. Sometimes the challenges come and we have to persevere, and we can if our Resolution was strong. . . but also along the way our cup runs over, and we feel that fulfillment, we feel like we are at the right place at the right time, and it all just works out right. And that brings us to the next part:
Legacy, people will see your energy, your attitude, your accomplishments, your strength, all of it, and it makes a difference, you leave behind that kind of legacy, you are remembered for what you have done, and then you give God all the glory. . . because the last part is the most difficult, modeled by Moses in this morning’s Old Testament Lesson.
The last is Retirement. . . . stepping away, passing on what you have done so that some one else can finish. The play goes on, and you have contributed your verse and now it is time for someone else to finish. You started with humility, you were serving the Lord and not yourself, can you remain humble enough to let go, and move on to the next thing? So very important, but so very challenging.
Now I know that I have built up serving the Lord to a high level, using big words to describe it, but I want to close with a reminder that this is about the small things as much as the big. If you can do everything in life, as part of your service to God, then you will always be in the right place. . . George Herbert’s poem which I quoted in the bulletin gets at this idea. Let me close with it.
All may of Thee partake: 
         Nothing can be so mean, 
Which with his tincture—"for Thy sake"— 
         Will not grow bright and clean. 

A servant with this clause 
         Makes drudgery divine: 
Who sweeps a room as for Thy laws, 
         Makes that and th' action fine. 

This is the famous stone 
         That turneth all to gold; 
For that which God doth touch and own 
         Cannot for less be told.
From “The Elixir” by George Herbert

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Snuffed Out

"Snuffed Out"
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
October 29, 2017
at Bethany Presbyterian Church, Zuni, Virginia
Romans 12:11a-b
Matthew 5: 13-16
Revelation 2: 1-5 

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
           For your eyes show us the way
           Your mind knows the truth
           Your being is the life.
We’re continuing this morning with the Marks of a True Christian, where we have been studying what Paul said a True Christian should look like, should embody, the marks that would distinguish the Christian from the regular folks of his day, that would be the identifying factors, so they are not necessarily prescriptive, like laws would be, commanding how we should be living, but instead are descriptive of how people could be, living in the grace, no basking in the Grace of what Paul has set forth as the gift of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. This is the type of person made possible by the grace of Jesus Christ. So the challenge is each week to hold a mirror up to our faces, not to condemn ourselves for failing to live up to them, but instead inspire us to try, to seek, to get better, to improve, to keep fighting and driving ever onward, and upward, in these ways, And this morning the phrase from Marks of a True Christian is no different in its challenge to us, and in its importance within the life of our church, and that is, “Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit.” But before we go any further with it, I want to go back, like we always do and look at where we are going with this series, and of course also where we have been, so here are the Marks of the True Christian according to Paul, Romans 12: 9-21, again me reading from the New Revised Standard version for just this reading today, the other’s I have taken from NIV, so they will match the pew Bibles this morning. . . .

9 Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

So do not lag in Zeal, and be ardent in Spirit. . . Before we start, I'd like to look at the words of our verse for this morning. Two words stand out because we rarely use them in our every day speech. One is "zeal" and the other is "ardent." Zeal is a little more familiar. The dictionary says that zeal is "eagerness and ardent interest in the pursuit of something." And there is that other word, "ardent," right in there. Now in the dictionary "ardent" is "characterized by warmth of feeling typically expressed in eager zealous support or activity" [2] And there is that word zeal, in zealous. Do you see why I kept this verse together intact? They are both talking about the same idea. The dictionary gave similar synonyms for both: fervor, fiery, hot. The Greek Root word for the word translated as ardent is the verb "leo," which means to boil. Literally "leontes" which is translated in the NRSV as ardent means boiling over as if out of control. Sounds a little bit also like the root for Lion, and perhaps that is a good image for our minds as well, and perhaps not the lion you may see lying in the shade in the zoo, or in the shade of the African Savannah, even, but the symbolic, mythical, lion, majestic, strong, true. . . of one mind, the lion on the hunt. . . intent, energetic, completely focused on the task. . . .
I’m going to read to you two different descriptions of churches both of which are written by those from the outside, voicing their perceptions of the goings on within the church. I want you to try to figure out which one is describing a Presbyterian Church and which one is not. The first:

The church has spread with its appeal focused especially on the common people. The churches are convened sometimes by mere enthusiasts, who, in these meetings read sundry fanatical books, and use long extempore prayers and discourses—sometimes by itinerant strolling ministers, and at present by a permanent preacher, who is well known to be intimate with known evangelical rabble rousers. Their sole purpose is to spread their religion to all parts of this colony, using emotional frenzy, undermining the true church at every step.[1]

Ok that is the first, here is the second.

The church is in a low state. A surprising negligence appears in attending on Publick worship; and an equally surprising Levity and Unconcernedness in those who attend. Godliness is not common. There is a general malaise in the congregation. The sermons are dull and thue people are contented by the stale teachings from the pulpit.[2]

Which is the Presbyterian Church as described in those two passages? Is the Presbyterian Church the one described as filled with emotional frenzy, or is the Presbyterian Church the one described as stale and dead? People on the outside never quite understand do they. Many look at Presbyterians today and stereotype us in certain ways. Frozen Chosen, perhaps?
But so do we, we do the same thing. Of course these are descriptions of our church and the elevate church right, the new and vibrant kid on the block, where all the young folks are going. . . I’ve heard it here, said, it’s just emotion, touchy feely, promise, Christmas, not Christianity, prosperity Gospel, Good Feeling stuff. . . and they might describe us in the way of the second, stale and dead, outdated and old. . . but the truth is these two descriptions are not from churches today, and yes one is Presbyterian, but in fact it is the first one. . . not the second, the vibrant one, the one that is described as a frenzy. . . now of course those are descriptions from an outsider, but how interesting the roles could be so reversed. . . at least for us. Yes the first is a description of what was going on in Hanover at the upstart Presbyterian Congregation at Polegreen, under the pastorship of the Rev. Samuel Davies. . . it was written by the Pastor of the other church being described, the Rev. Patrick Henry (the uncle and namesake of the liberty or death guy we know), who felt threatened by the upstart church, and though his church was state sponsored by the crown in the colony, and the others were dissenters, he still felt threatened, because his church had become stale and dead, as is described. It is interesting to think about, what accounts for the change? To get back on track, one church is not lagging in zeal and the other is, one church is ardent in the spirit and the other is not. Now why is this so important, other than the obvious, to answer that question let’s look at our Gospel and New Testament Lessons.
The first, out of Christ’s own mouth, in the Sermon on the Mount, as presented to us in Matthew 5: 13-16
13 “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
14 “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

We’ve heard that before that the job of the church, the job of the Christian, the job of the disciple of Christ is to let our lights shine before others, so that they may see us and give glory to God. . . . our light to be lit and held up on a lampstand. . . and that brings us to our second reading, this one from Revelation. This John of Patmos’ letter to the church at Ephesus, one of the seven churches he writes to, to open up the book of Revelation.

2 “To the angel of the church in Ephesus write:
These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands. 2 I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. 3 You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary.
4 Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. 5 Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place

I was at a Presbytery Meeting one time, it was actually where I became a candidate for Ministry, you go through these stages, the first is Inquirer, and then Candidate, and each time you go before the whole of the Presbytery. It was nice because it was at the church of which I was under care, the church where I was a member, and they were “sponsoring” me for lack of a better term. . . there in Gloucester, which actually has since left the Presbytery, ironically, but at this meeting the speaker of the worship part, was talking about churches who have lost it. He was about church growth and church vitality, but he was talking about the churches that just didn’t make it. . . and he quoted this passage, and used it as a metaphor, that all churches have a candle, and little things happen over time that just snuffs out the light. . . it was funny my dad and I kept doing it for the rest of the meeting, any time that bureaucratic group think happened in the Meeting. . . we need funding for this, sshmmmffff, we’re cutting funding for this, sshmfff, there will be another mission study looking at how churches can do better at this, shmfff, a new committee must be formed to discuss whether or not the flag in the Presbytery office should be moved from the main hall to a more prominent place, shmmmffff. Awe who cares??? And it was just like most meetings where every cares, or at least wants to be heard, in the moment, but then after the meeting no one really cares at all, now that its over, oh well back to work, shmmmffff.
That Candle became the metaphor for the zeal of the church, the ardency of the spirit. . . but how does it happen, how does a church go from a zealous church to a church with a flickering lampstand, a candle in the wind. . . ?
I’m not sure, but I have my suspicions because I know what robs me of my zeal. One is when people are put in a box and not allowed to be themselves. If I were to hear those two descriptions of church from earlier, the live one and the dead one, I wouldn’t want to be either because I would want to defy the description. No that is not me, I am more than that. You can’t label me accurately, you can’t fence me in, there is more to me than that, because I’m always growing, learning, changing, by the experiences that I have, people are dynamic, and created by God as such. So any labels, descriptions, expectations, of me or other people, they snuff out my candle. . . I believe that individuals were created uniquely by God in His image, and God defies labels, so so should his reflection.
The next is similar. I don’t like it when someone is not allowed to live up to their potential. . . and it is similar to the other one because labels are one of the ways that people tend to stifle potential. I used to hate it when my students had over time developed understandings of their abilities and identities that were less than what they could have been. They had been taught, or led to believe that, this was all they could do, or less. . . which brings me to my third thing that snuffs me out, and that is when systems are put in place to make it so a person doesn’t have to live up to their potential. . . the creation of crutches that make excelling no longer necessary. . . One of my favorite poems gets at this. . . TS Eliots, Choruses from the Rock. . . it is so good, but this one part says:
They constantly try to escape
From the darkness outside and within
By dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.

How true that statement is of our world. How many systems have we tried to create, so that no one would needs to be good anymore. . . and the cynical piece is, that what  it is saying underneat is that they cannot be good. . . they don’t have what it takes. . .  people can be better, but often we don’t let them be. . . because we make it so they do not have to be. . . I see this, and smmffff my candle of zeal goes straight out, or else I seek to fight it, and as long as I’m fighting against it, my candle burns, but when I give up and give in. . . smfff.
Now you may ask yourself, how does this happen in church, what does your pet peeve have to do with church, Pete. Now I think the same scenarios take place over time within a church. You get use to each other, and you get used to things as they are, and you don’t see them or each other as dynamic any more and you get used to the labels. You know each other so well so you put each other in boxes. Oh he’s just that way, or she’s just that way. . . smmmfff, and you create systems that sustain the life of the organization by creating as little conflict as possible, smmfff. Oh the Presbyterian Church is full of those, we have a big thick book of order, mostly designed to try and prevent old conflicts from happening again, but does it work, no, it just makes us fearful of conflict and robs us of our zeal. We stop challenging each other to be constantly changing and alive and vibrant, and supportive, because we are more interested in keeping everyone happy and safe,. . . and slowly the zeal of truly rising constantly to our potential collectively and potentials individually, in an ever upward growth pattern becomes stagnant. It happens in organizations and it happens in families, people get used to each other and they just expect each other to always be the same, or in some cases demand it. . . and as the people so goes the institution, flat. . .
The other way it happens is also connected. . . because the church takes on a label and an identity, and rather than being one of vitality it becomes one of holding on. Someone starts something, and it is their baby, they love it, they are fired up about it, and they do it well, but then they die, or move away, or stops,  and it of course needs to continue because its what we do here right, but no one else is quite as fired up about it. They try to keep it going but they aren’t them, and it becomes a burden. It becomes a must do instead of a want to do. . . and must. . . flows from the label, not the actual dynamic personality of someone, right. I am here, and so I “should” pick up the slack, as a church member, it is my duty. . . but your gifts and talents and interests are elsewhere, but what will happen to us if we let this thing go? What is our identity without it? This is the baggage that is constantly being built up, and it weighs a church down because it weighs its people down. Do you know the line that follows, the one about building systems, so that people will not have to be good. . . it is
But the man that is shall shadow
The man that pretends to be.

The man that is. . . who are you, not who do people think you are supposed to be, not what other people have been so you think you have to emulate, but who are you, stop pretending and be that, all else lowers your zeal. . . it is the deathnell of any church because a church is not the building, a church is not a steeple, a church is a people, and stagnant, pigeon holed shells, lag in zeal and are not ardent in the spirit.
It’s the bunny story that I read to the kids during children’s time. I don’t know how the clothes got on, but they are there, and you can’t be a bunny, until you take them off. . . and if you leave them, beware because danger is lurking.
This Sunday, today is Reformation Sunday because it was on October 31st that Martin Luther nailed his Theses to the door Whittenburg. He was reacting to the same situation. Over the years the Catholic Church had added things to what it meant to be a church, and what it meant to be a Christian, and Luther wanted to strip those things away and get at what it truly meant. He said not the works, but instead faith, not the priest, but the priesthood of all believers. Not tradition, but Sola Scriptura, only scripture. . . these principles he used to get back to what was essential to the faith, and the rest had to be stripped. . . and it was difficult, wars were fought. . . Calvin took it a few steps further, parallel to Luther in Geneva. . . and he added the idea to his Reformed faith saying, Ecclesia semper reformanda est, Reformed and always Reforming, knowing that churches and people have a tendancy to add things to themselves, that separate them from the light airy baggageless discipleship that we are called to. . .
What we need to do is get back to the essentials of what makes us. . . which is why I’ve been going through these Marks of a Christian. . . for they are challenging ways to get us to think about what the standard is, how it is impossible, and how we must dynamically be constantly fighting and moving upward, not to attain it, but to be constantly working. . . I want to read another part of the Choruses from the Rock for you. . . this is earlier when Eliot is talking about what the work of humans is, he says “the lot of man is ceaseless labor,” a never ending battle. . . he writes:
Let me show you the work of the humble. Listen.

In the vacant places
We will build with new bricks
Where the bricks are fallen
We will build with new stone
Where the beams are rotten
We will build with new timbers
Where the word is unspoken
We will build with new speech
There is work together
A Church for all
And a job for each
Every man to his work.

What life have you, if you have not life together?
There is not life that is not in community,
And no community not lived in praise of GOD.

Some people would say that we need to update the program here, appeal to younger audiences, pull out the pews, stop singing old and traditional hymns,, be more like Elevate. I disagree, absolutely and completely, because you will not get any closer to being yourself by trying to copy what they are doing down the street. It is not about them it is about us. . . and I believe to my heart that a church unapologetically doing what they are called to be, and being who they are, is a dynamic church, and it is dynamic churches that survive. . . one trying to be someone else will fail. . . one who is always shadows over one who merely pretends to be. . .
What is central to us as this community living in praise of God? What is essential? How can we get back to those basics, the are the questions and let the rest go, shed it like the clothes that has slowed the bunny, lay those burdens on Christ. . . There has been a repeated theme, week after week, have you noticed? It comes back to Faith, Gratitude, and Love. . . . Faith that God has made us, saved us, and is sustaining us through his Sovereign and perfect will, and therefore who he has made us to be is who we should strive to be, an no pretending else, for the next is Gratitude that, that Will is good for us, and better than we can do for ourselves in shaping ourselves, and how it all then frees us to only Love for those who we walk life with are just as created, with the same boundless potential, and though they be like us in someways are always completely unique.  . . Faith, Gratitude and Love, is a good place to start, why not leave the rest behind. It is of note that the church in Ephesus has their lamp stand removed simply because they lost their love. . It is essential. Without it we’re lost
And speaking of lost. The meditation in the bulletin from Paradise Lost, from the mouth of Satan of all characters, this his for once because he is alone in his thoughts if just for a moment becasue he doesn’t end here, but this is an actual description of remorse. . .and it echoes. . .
nor was his service hard.
What could be less then to afford him praise,
The easiest recompence, and pay him thanks. . .
. . . The debt immense of endless gratitude,
So burthensome,
still paying, still to ow;
Forgetful what from him I still receivd
And understood not that a grateful mind
By owing owes not, but still pays, at once
Indebted and dischargd; what burden then?

Remember when we were defining love, I said that it is a cup that never is empty, it is always running over. . . look here a grateful mind, by owing owes not, but still pays, at once indebted and discharged; what burden then? If we are truly living these essentials, our zeal shall never flag, and we shall ever remain ardent in the spirit. . .