Monday, December 4, 2017

That Prophetic Fire

"That Prophetic Fire"
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
December 3, 2017
at Bethany Presbyterian Church, Zuni, Virginia
Isaiah 6: 9-13
Matthew 19: 16-26



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.
Amen.


Now here we are the second week of Advent, it’s hard to believe because without us really knowing it, December has crept in, but it is only the 3rd, and we are already at week two, and last week I sought to paint a picture of the B.C. world, I tried to mix in the historical situation with some ancient religious views, some from a Pagan perspective, and even some basic interpretations of Old Testament Theology, with each was paired a verse of O Come O Come Emanuel, so there was a simultaneous juxtaposition of their seemingly hopeless great need for a savior, and the Rejoice, Rejoice, the savior has come to thee. The idea was to paint a picture of the great need, the great desert we would find ourselves in if there was no Christ and the promises of God were all found wanting, and in such a desert we would be crying out in dire thirst for a savior, and this thirst would lead us to seek out Christ in Bethlehem. . . because that is what Advent is about, the journey to Bethlehem, seeking the Christ child. . .
And so this year I decided I wanted to look at all the things that point us towards Bethlehem, to all the things that make us look there, symbolically and literally, of all places, and trying to also figure out what it is we seek when we head out on our journey towards Bethlehem. What do we seek and why? That is the question of this Advent season, figuring that if we can somehow answer that          question, we may just make it afterall, and bow down with the angels, and shepherds, and wisemen, there before the cradle of the newborn king on Christmas Eve Sunday morning and evening. . .
Because it's far, and getting to Bethlehem in this world is no easy trek. I read to the girls every night, and one of my favorites to read is the Brer Rabbit stories, and the one of those that Coralee loved best for a long time was called "Brer Rabbit and the Witch Rabbit" and she, the witch, Ole A'nt Mammy Bammy Big Money, lives far, far in the middle of the swamp, and Brer Rabbit gotst to get to her to cure his mopes, and it says to get there
you have to jump some, hump some; hop some, flop some; ride some, slide some; creep some, leap some; foller some, holler some (and Coralee would always add, ride in the van some), but then it would end with “and if you're not careful you may not get there then, but Brer Rabbit he got there, and he knew cuz for all dat smoke"  

and we can too. . . for us it's similar, for us we gots to head on to Bethlehem and we got to sing some and ring some, pray some and stay some; read some, and need some, give some, and live some; cook some, and look some, learn some and yearn some, seek some and speak some, bless some and rest some, and finally love a whole lot, and we might not even get there den, but then again we just might.
So This week I also want to direct us on our journey toward Bethlehem, but not through the lens of our need alone, but this time from the message of the Prophets, for they send people seeking out Bethlehem as well. . .
Ok, so Prophets, what is a prophet? Normally when we think of a prophet, we think of someone who tells the future. . . we might think of Teiresias, the blind prophet from literature, who speaks as one who knows, who foretells things about Odysseus, Oedipus, even tells Julius Ceasar to beware the ides of March. . . and we might carry over that same idea to the Old Testament, and we might look to the prophetic books of the Bible, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Jonah, Habbakuk, Malachi, Micah, and the rest. . . .we might look to them for their prophesies of Jesus, that is what most people do, especially at this time a year, reading the great passages especially in Isaiah, foretelling Christ, the voice crying out in the wilderness telling us to make the paths straight, or all we like sheep have gone astray, or the people walking in darkness have seen a great light, or Do You Not know, have you not heard, or the lion lying down with the lamb, the swords into plowshares, or For us a child is born, and that he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Almighty Father, Prince of Peace, you can hear them all ringing out in Handel’s Messiah, “For Unto us a Son is Given, and the government shall be on his shoulder, and he shall be called Wonderful Counselor,  the mighty God, everlasting father, prince of Peace.” Or maybe even the Suffering Servant, with his stripes are we healed. . . all of these are in Isaiah, but it is also in the Prophets where Bethlehem is named, and almost every other aspect of the Birth story of Jesus is found somewhere in them. . . and all of them written at least 300 years before that birth, and many of them much, much older than that. Yes that is what the prophets can be read as, and as I said usually are, but there is much missing when you do it that way.
Because the Prophets had another important role within their own context. They were given the mission to speak the Lord’s truth to power, and often as you can imagine people did not want to hear it. We get to see the narrative of it in 1 and 2 Kings where we see the prophet Elijah speaking truth against Ahab and Jezebel, and we can see how difficult his message must’ve been to hear, from their intense reaction to it. . . and much of the prophets’ message is still difficult to hear today. . . this is what I want to call that prophetic fire, because like fire, it burns hot, and can leave a path of destruction, at least to the way things are, behind them,  and it is this aspect of the prophets I want to focus on today, their prophetic fire. But before I do I want to tell a little story. . . and then I promise I’ll get to our scripture passages for today.         
 Imagine you are a senior in high school, and it is the last day of class. It is the last day of class and you have a major term paper due, but you have failed to do it. You had one thing that you needed to do to graduate, but you failed to get it done. For whatever reason it just didn’t happen. You started it, you worked for a great while on it, but just couldn’t bring it to completion, and the worst thing is that it is to be turned into your favorite teacher, and your advisor, someone who has taught you the world, opened up new insights in life, let you see the world a completely different way, helped you through some really difficult times, when your mom was sick, he was there, when your girlfriend or boyfriend decided to start dating someone else he was there, when you fumbled the ball in the championship game and the game was lost because of you, he was there, talked you through it, cared you through it, there were great afternoon times when you would talk about life and the future, he made you believe that your future was among the brightest, he believed in you. He let you know over and over again, trying to instill in you the value that you were made to do amazing things, but you had one thing to do, and you couldn’t get it done. And he’s taught you about choices, and their consequences, and so you know how important it is to get work done, he’s never let you slide, it just wouldn’t be right, so now you have a choice to make. . . You have his class third period, you have the first two periods to decide what to do, two periods to decide what you value in life.
What do you choose to do? Do you try to finish it, though there just is no time? Do you turn in a fake paper hoping he doesn’t notice that only the first page is done, and the rest of them are blank? Or do you do something much more elaborate. . . do you hide, by skipping third period, avoid the situation entirely, but then you accidentally run into him at lunch, he asks where you were you tell him you were with the nurse. . . he looks you up and down, but trusts you, why wouldn’t he, but he asks you, you got the paper right, just make sure you put it in the box as soon as you can. . . sure thing you say, whew, safe. . . ok, then, see you this afternoon. . . this afternoon? You say to yourself, but it dawns on you. . . oh yeah last day of school, we are supposed to meet with our advisors, one last time to say good bye. . . sure thing, you say. . . . now what am I going to do. You worry over it the whole day, but decide when the day is over you’ll just get in your car and drive home. . . You decide to hide. . . and then when it comes up, you decide to try to shirk the blame, blame others, blame the technology, blame the situation, blame  your friends, anything to get through, and then your parents talk to the principal, no one wants to fail a senior right before graduation, so you get a deal, you get to walk, but you get your diploma once the paper is done, so you walk, celebrate graduation, go to the beach with your friends, and you write a paper just to get it done, turn it in to the school secretary, no one reads it, the box is checked off, you get the diploma and you start college in the fall. . . alls well that ends well. . . right? Of course. . .
Everything worked out for the best right? What was lost? What is the worst part of this story? Can you see this happening? We’ll answer those questions hopefully soon.
But as promised, the scripture readings. The first is actually from a well know area of the prophet Isaiah, it is actually right from his call narrative, but I skipped over that part that every one is familiar with, the part where God says, whom shall I send, and the prophet says, here I am, send me. Hymns are written about that part, I’ve seen it on bumper stickers and tshirts, whom shall I send, here I am send me, but what is usually never read, nor remembered is what comes right after it, what God actually sends him to say: but check it out, here is Isaiah 6:9-13
He said, “Go and tell this people:
“‘Be ever hearing, but never understanding;
    be ever seeing, but never perceiving.’
10 Make the heart of this people calloused;
    make their ears dull
    and close their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
    hear with their ears,
    understand with their hearts,
and turn and be healed.”
11 Then I said, “For how long, Lord?”
And he answered:
“Until the cities lie ruined
    and without inhabitant,
until the houses are left deserted
    and the fields ruined and ravaged,
12 until the Lord has sent everyone far away
    and the land is utterly forsaken.
13 And though a tenth remains in the land,
    it will again be laid waste.
But as the terebinth and oak
    leave stumps when they are cut down,
    so the holy seed will be the stump in the land.”

Do you hear this, do you remember this, do you ever remember reading this? How many of you remember, whom shall I send? Go ahead send me? Now how many of you remember this? Be ever hearing but never understanding, be ever seeing but not perceiving, I will send everyone away until the land is utterly forsaken, until a tenth, but then I will leave them so that the seeds, the holy seed is nothing but the stumps remaining in the land. . . does that ring a bell? What about Unto us a child is born, wonderful counselor, what about the voice crying out in the wilderness, what about, swords into plowshares? Yeah we remember those, but not this, houses left deserted and fields ruined and ravaged. . . why not? Because we skip them. I have to give the Monday Night Bible study group credit, they are driving themselves through it all, mired in the world of Ezekiel for the past few months. It is hard, and one of the most difficult things is when you get to passages where there is destruction, and God is saying, and then they will know my name is the Lord, you want to shave off the edge of it. . . and that is usually what happens with the prophets, they either are skipped, or have their edges shaved. . .but that brings me to the new Testament Lesson. . . a difficult and quite often shaved passage, this time out of the mouth of the greatest of all prophets, and he who fulfills the role of the prophet and surpasses the need for one into perpetuity, Jesus Christ. . . listen to Jesus here in Matthew, this 19:16-26

16 Just then a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”
17 “Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.”
18 “Which ones?” he inquired.
Jesus replied, “‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, 19 honor your father and mother,’ and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’”
20 “All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?”
21 Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
22 When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.
23 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
25 When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?”
26 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

Look at what we have here, a man is asking Jesus what he needs to do to attain eternal life? And Jesus asks him, why do you ask, there is only one who is good, etc., but then Jesus says if you want to enter life, keep the commandments, the man asks which ones, Jesus lists them straight from the 10 commandments, the man says, cool got that done, so Jesus says, great go and sell your possessions and give them to the poor. . . come follow me. . . but the man can’t do it, he walks away sad, Jesus says it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God. . . now how many of us read this story literally? Because literally it sure does seem that the way to get eternal life is to sell off all your possessions, give the money to the poor and follow Jesus? Has anybody hear done that? No, me neither. . .? What about collectively as a church? We sure have got a lot of nice things here in this church, what about selling it all off, the building, all of it and giving it to the poor. . . go off and follow Jesus? Have you ever been in a Sunday School class where this passage comes up. . . you start talking about this and that, how Jesus meant something else, or you focus on how the eye of a needle is not really, an actual needle, but that there is a place in Jerusalem, where the roads are really constricted and it was called the eye of a needle, and it was hard to get camels through there, but you know, not impossible. . . or you might focus on how other people are rich, and he can’t mean me, he means Bill Gates and all the other rest of the 1%. . ., and it is interesting how people have been fighting for years against anyone ever saying that any of the Old Testament stories could ever be figurative and not history, but we’ll turn one of Jesus’ hard teachings into a metaphor in a heartbeat. . . you know some of the great ones, like this one, or hating  your mother father, sister brother, or the Prince of Peace bringing a sword. . . He doesn’t really mean that literally, there must be something we don’t get about it, must be. . . we do it it’s human nature. . . and when we get into the weeds of the books of the prophets often we do the same thing. You start talking about well what does God mean by sin, and how is it punished, and how it’s the Israelites and how Idols are little things made out of stone.
Now let’s think about my story about the student. . . what is lost in that story? Two things right? His character and the relationship he had with the teacher. . . both of those are gone, and for all intents and purposes there are no real world consequences. . . they were too real for him, his parents and the school system protected him from them because he was too big to fail. . . where have you heard that before. . . Yes there are many levels here. . . the edges were too much, so let’s roll them back a little bit for him. . . but who is supposed to give out the grades, who is supposed to be the judge of the situation, whose opinion is supposed to be the one that matters? Yes the teacher, but instead of standing up to that fire, he went somewhere else, where he could get the answer that he wanted, and technically it was a higher authority. . . the teacher’s boss, the power brokers in his world, his parents. . . and they didn’t have the same standards. . . the system didn’t have the same standards. . . but what would the teacher have done? We’ll never know. . .
What if we called the student, Adam, called the assignment the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and not doing the assignment, eating the Fruit. . . what does Adam do, right he hides, he blames, he avoids . . . but what does God do? God shows up! There in the cool of the day saying, Where are you? What would God have done if Adam didn’t hide? We’ll never know. . . What would God have done if Adam wouldn’t have tried to blame Eve and the serpent? We’ll never know. . . or will we?
After Jesus is crucified and raised in the Gospel of Mark, he tells the disciples and Peter, to meet him in Galilee. . . now Peter has denied Jesus three times, deserting him in the time of need, but yet he is still called. . . would Jesus have called Judas too by name had he not killed himself? We’ll never know. . . hmm, interesting question though. . .
What would the teacher have done had the student shown up? Hmmm. . .
What would God have done?
The Prophetic books tell about Sin and God and retribution and punishment, and things out of order getting put back in order for a people who would rather go to idols again and again than stand before their God. Why do they go to idols? The same reason the student went to his parents and the principal rather than going to the teacher. . . the idols, and more importantly their priests and Ahab and Jezebel, give the shaved down version of truth that the world likes to peddle. The one that says, I’m ok and you’re ok, and as long as we go this way, all will be well. . . but it isn’t ok, it isn’t well, it is a non sustainable path because it’s a path that has gone astray. . . the prophet’s voice, that prophetic fire is needed to tell us that we are not lining up our lives against the truth. . . the idols say, Peace, Peace, but the prophet, in this case Jeremiah, screams out, no there is no peace. . . you can’t sweep the truth under the rug because it is uncomfortable, you can’t shave off the edges of the truth, just to make it palatable for yourself. . . you can’t change the rules so that you can win, so that you are in. . . though we all try again and again. . .
Sell all of your possession and give the money to the poor and follow me. I could shave that down, and make it so I get in. . . make it so that I’m fit for heaven, fit myself for heaven to live with Jesus there, wait that isn’t how Away in the Manger goes is it?. . . Well even so, that is just a Christmas Carol anyway, a children’s song. . . Maybe though Jesus meant 1/10th , of all my possessions, I tithe so I’m set, what is it that Ray Stevens song said? If 10 percent is good enough for Jesus it should be good enough for Uncle Sam. . . something like that. . . I can pay my 10 percent and then I’m set. . . Ray Stevens says its good enough for Jesus, but Jesus said all. . .
How can we reconcile the two? I think the answer is there in Jesus’ words. . . first he says to the man, “why do you ask me about what is good?” Then he says, “Only one is good” Then Jesus says later, “If you want to be perfect” . . .the whole possessions bit, then he says “it is hard for someone who is rich, being easier with the eye and the needle and the camel, remember. . . yes” and the disciples are like, this is impossible. . . and Jesus answers, “with man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
Jesus asks, why are you talking about being good? Why are you trying to be good enough? You won’t be. . . it’s never enough. . . so don’t try to pull down the standards so that you will fit them. . . you can’t, and when you do you create a different reality, one where you are in control, where you are master, but that place doesn’t exist, just like those idols are made of stone. . . but then how can we stand?
What will God do?
Back to the story of the student? What is important to the student? Making the grade, getting into college, fitting into the system, right, getting through. . . if the teacher is a good teacher, is any of that important to the teacher? Not at all. . . sure I wanted my students to succeed, but never at the expense of two other things which I found to always be more important. . . Our relationship and their potential. These are the things that I offered my students. . . and many didn’t get it. . . they would hide, they would apologize when they didn’t have my work done, they would bring me excuses. . . but none of that mattered to me, why are you apologizing to me. . . own it and move on, do better tomorrow. . . my opinion of you hasn’t changed, only yours has of yourself. I tried in that way to create a classroom dynamic of grace. . . at least the way I saw it. . . and grades were the least important in that scenario. What I wouldn’t change was my standards for them. . . that they were given absolute God given potential. . .
Adam was made in the image of God. . . and in this image of God transgressed against God’s one decree. . . but God shows up, and Adam hides. . . Adam blames. . . Adam tries to create an alternate world where God’s truths are not real, and his standards need not be followed, but that world is not the one God created. . . is it? Read the prophets, read the Bible, read the teachings of Jesus, the sermon on the Mount. . . the world and our lives in it are not what God created. . . shaving off those edges does not change that fact, it just sinks us deeper into them. . . but why are we, like the Rich man in the story, talking about good? We don’t need to talk about Good. . . we are far from Good, and the prophets will tell us as such. . . and show us the results of such things to our world, our world. . . but we aren’t called to live in our world. . . instead we need to stand in God’s.
But we can’t how can we ever stand? We aren’t good enough? I must run from such reality, but God says, Repent! Turn around, if you are facing away from God, if you are fleeing from God’s presence, turning around would be facing God. . . standing in God’s presence, fallen hopelessly short. . .  What will God do? I can’t stop sinning, I need to fix my behavior, and then I can stand in God’s presence. . . I need to fix myself before I stand there, right. . . turn around, stand and see. What will God do? Bring all that baggage to Bethlehem and find out. . . because again I promise you God will show up. . . haven’t we learned anything? Not one iota of the law has passed away, but stand there even so, and God will show up. . . come to Bethlehem and see. . .


Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Prophetic Fire

Prophetic Fire

Who could stand in the face of prophetic fire,
Stand brood and erect in the elemental ire?
It is easier by far to hide and call God a liar,
Maybe not wholesale, but he never
Could have meant that, not literally.
It’s not doable, not possible, no we‘ll shave
Off the edge, so we all can get it done,
Feel better, and go on living just as we are.

Can I accept that my life comes at a cost,
My nourishment depends on another’s lost,
A detail my mind would rather leave glossed,
And distant, a truth easier to ignore,
At the Local Grocery store, safe wherein
I need not know what sacrifices are being
Made each day for me? I’m not even saved
From such truth by my freshly picked salad.

Can I admit my life has consequences,
That there are always paid expenses
By others who do stand defenseless
Against a plan for which they did not ask,
Nor get a vote, a choice, a pick? Such is life,
We can hide from it, shave it, gloss it over
Or try to stand tall, take a step, and sing,
“Hallelujah” walking as each day cools.




Monday, November 20, 2017

The Thick

"The Thick"
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
November 19, 2017
at Bethany Presbyterian Church, Zuni, Virginia
Romans 12:12b
Job 1: 13-22
1 Peter 4: 12-19



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.
Amen.


God does interesting things, especially when you don’t plan, like for instance I started this sermon series, what two months ago, at least, and I didn’t really look at how any of the dates were going to line up. I just week to week, would wrestle with each phrase as it came up, but what we have for today, the Sunday before Thanksgiving of all days, is “be patient in suffering.” Interesting right. . . and God has a sense of humor I’m sure. Here on the day where everyone is expecting you to talk about gratitude and giving thanks, why don’t you take a stab at patient suffering? Yeah wind up this Marks of a Christian series on that one Pete, go for it. . . and we do wrap up today, having merely scratched the surface, because next week we begin the Advent Season, and we need that time to prepare for Christmas, so we’ll end with the Marks today, and we’ll come back to it at some point in the future, I’m not sure yet when because I have other, plans for after the Christmas season is over. I’m planning to step through the life of Christ from Christmas to Easter, so it might be next summer before we get back to it. So for the last time in a while here is the Marks of a Christian, that we know so well, 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 this morning where the bulletin has all the decoration of our annual celebration of thanks, where the communion table has been so beautifully decorated with a harvest cornucopia, where all the hymns, and the choir’s rousing anthem are about Giving Thanks, we turn our eyes on suffering. I know right. . . we’ll just see, now won’t we. . . I mean last week we got to talk about hope, and hope would have been perfect to match with gratitude, but suffering? And if we take a look back at the journey we have been on this fall with The Marks of a True Christian. So far we have looked at: Love being genuine; hating evil, clinging to the Good; Brotherly Love; Competing with each other in showing honor. We’ve talked about zeal, having that ceaseless energy that is needed, especially when we are trying to serve the Lord. Then rejoicing in hope," all of them would have been great to match with Thanksgiving, but now this week instead "be patient in suffering." Well, so to do this I want to look at the Old Testament and New Testament lessons first, rather than waiting like I have done in recent weeks. . . first the Old Testament. . . and what better reading on suffering than the description of Job’s afflictions, from Job 1, here are the final verses of Job 1, namely 13-22

One day when Job’s sons and daughters were feasting and drinking wine at the oldest brother’s house, 14 a messenger came to Job and said, “The oxen were plowing and the donkeys were grazing nearby, 15 and the Sabeans attacked and made off with them. They put the servants to the sword, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!”
16 While he was still speaking, another messenger came and said, “The fire of God fell from the heavens and burned up the sheep and the servants, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!”
17 While he was still speaking, another messenger came and said, “The Chaldeans formed three raiding parties and swept down on your camels and made off with them. They put the servants to the sword, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!”
18 While he was still speaking, yet another messenger came and said, “Your sons and daughters were feasting and drinking wine at the oldest brother’s house, 19 when suddenly a mighty wind swept in from the desert and struck the four corners of the house. It collapsed on them and they are dead, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!”
20 At this, Job got up and tore his robe and shaved his head. Then he fell to the ground in worship 21 and said:
“Naked I came from my mother’s womb,
    and naked I will depart.
The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away;
    may the name of the Lord be praised.”
22 In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing.

How about that for a picture of suffering, and Job accepted it, did not charge God with any wrongdoing. And if that wasn’t enough let’s look at the New Testament, here 1 Peter 4: 12-19, which my Bible labels, “Suffering as a Christian” yes I know right, give thanks. . .
12 Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed. 14 If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, is resting on you. 15 But let none of you suffer as a murderer, a thief, a criminal, or even as a mischief maker. 16 Yet if any of you suffers as a Christian, do not consider it a disgrace, but glorify God because you bear this name. 17 For the time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God; if it begins with us, what will be the end for those who do not obey the gospel of God? 18 And
“If it is hard for the righteous to be saved,
what will become of the ungodly and the sinners?”
19 Therefore, let those suffering in accordance with God’s will entrust themselves to a faithful creator, while continuing to do good.

Now I know that tradition dictates that I should proclaim this the word of the Lord, and you all would respond with Thanks be to God. . . but do you want to? I’ll leave it up to you. . . This is the Word of the Lord. . .
The reason I asked that question is that there is one truth that I have found in this our American world and culture, and that is that suffering does not sell. It is not a great lead. You never see advertisements offering up suffering. All State doesn't promise to provide mayhem, it tells you that mayhem is all around you, and if you get their insurance you will be safe in their "Good Hands." MacDonald's doesn't advertise that their food is bad for your health, could cause suffering a heart attack, not your hating it, but instead, "I'm loving it." Pepsi is the choice of a new generation, a cooler generation, not one suffering from diabetes. Suffering just doesn't sell, and here I am today saying that one of the true marks of a Christian is being patient in suffering. I’m not sure they are hearing this up the street. . . Suffering doesn’t sell, but it is reality.
But the other word in this phrase is no cupcake either, we are not a fan of suffering sure, but we also are not a fan of patience. In our world where we want things, now, where everything is available at our fingertips instantaneously, where if we have to wait even for a moment we try something else.  . . no patience is not a popular idea either. . . and if we were to pair them together there is nothing that would make us more impatient than suffering. . . but how true is it that they are often paired in life. I had a woman at my former church in Gordonsville. Early in my tenure there she was very active, she was in charge of getting the mail and bringing it to the church, she was in charge of setting up communion, she was the first person that anyone called to let them know what was going on, and she was always the first to be helping other people with whatever they had going on. I instantly loved her, such a sweet lady, but I remember clear as day, she came into my office and asked me, Pete what I really need to learn is patience, is there anything you can teach me about it. . . I told her we’d work together on it, and be careful what you wish for. . . her trials piled up right after that, her husband’s parkinsons steadily got worse, she fell and broke her pelvis, she also hurt her shoulder, and over the span of the next three years, she went from being active as anyone to being homebound, and a full time caregiver, even in the face of all her pain, as her pelvis took forever to heal. . . we joked many times when I’d visit her, that she was learning patience the hard way. . .
Patience is a funny word for me because it is tied to a memory. It was one of the first words that Coralee learned, though the concept still seems to escape her, as it does us all. I remember one time she wanted mommy really bad, and DeAnna needed a nap, she'd been dealing with her for long hours and needed a break. I just happened to come home from work, and could give her such a break. So I'm holding Coralee and she is freaking out, and I say to her you need to be patient, and she says back to me, "patient, patient" repeating it trying to convince herself. "Mommy needs a break sweatheart, and  you need to be patient." "Patient," she meekly squeaks out again.
Too often I think we think of patience as patience IN the midst of suffering. As Americans we do not know real suffering, and our entire life is built around protecting ourselves from suffering, and I wonder what that does to us. What does it do to us, to try to block ourselves from suffering? Because this mark of a true Christian doesn't say, avoid suffering at all costs, but when it eventually catches up to you, as it always seems to do, be patient and it will end at some point really soon. For Coralee and her suffering she just needed to chill for 15 minutes or so, so that DeAnna could get some peace, is that being patient in suffering? Is our suffering, suffering, and are we patient when it occurs? I'm not sure about y'all, but you can look at me and you know that I have never wondered about where my next meal would come from. I've also never really known real persecution for my beliefs, real oppression, real restriction on my life and my choices. So what this passage, "Be patient in suffering" means to me is, don't worry things won't be bad so long. Hard rain, don’t last. You'll get over it. All things come and go. Pain is temporary, but glory lasts. Football season including the post season for private schools in Virginia ended yesterday, and for the first time in a long time, I wasn’t a part of it, and yesterday was cool because I got to see my mentor win his second state championship, but football season was probably for the last 6 years at least was the hardest time of the year for our family. It would all start in August, DeAnna and the girls would go to the beach, and I’d be "suffering" all day practices in that hot August humid heat. And when I say all day I mean all day, 6 a.m. to about 10 p.m. for two week’s straight, followed then by a week of long boring beginning of the year faculty meetings. Then the scholl year would start and I’d work 7 day weeks for 3 straight months. . . it was long, and we would “suffer through it”  Starting with Hot temperatures, long hours, me being a little bit lonely, missing my girls, being a little bit bored. Then working a bunch of days straight, that was the extent of my “Suffering.” So let me be patient in it. Yeah I know I can get through. Just a little bit more, then I can go home and take a nap. It was bad, but that is not real suffering, it doesn’t compare to Job, and it doesn’t match what St. Peter is referring to in his letter.
Even Paul's audience is different, and his meaning of suffering is different, and his meaning of patience is different. For Christians in the beginning, there was real suffering going on. We know in our world that when trouble happens on a national scale, you know like an economic crisis, that people tend to lose their civility and their sense of humanity, and things get divided, and people get blamed, and often groups of people get blamed. On July 19, 64, the city of Rome burned, the great fire of Rome for which the emperor Nero is famous for playing his violin while the city burned. The problem was he was a little less negligent once the fires were out and the blame needed to be assigned. Like most politicians at this point they looked around and, to quote Mel Brooks, as the governor in Blazing Saddles, "We've got to protect our phony baloney jobs, Gentleman." The spin must begin, and so it did. The strange small, new sect of Christianity seemed to be a good scapegoat. The Roman historian Tacitus wrote it this way:
As a consequence, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians [or Chrestians] by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but, even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. In accordance, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not as much of the crime of firing the city as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired. 

Now here is the big question. . . Could you have patience in that kind of suffering? Would you still claim to be a Christian when the Roman Centurions came knocking at your house? I have to be honest that I'm not sure what I would do, but this is what Paul is talking about when he mentions suffering, being patient in persecution.
English translations always seem to down play it, both in the choosing of the word suffering, and the choosing of the word patient as translations. The Greek word here used for suffering has more to do with oppression and persecution than, mere bodily pain. It has more to do with finding yourself in the face of hatred, in the face of those who want you dead because of who you are and what you believe. Can we wrap our minds around that 1950 years later in the safety of America, here safe in Zuni? Can we even imagine what it would be like to live under such a hostile government, rather than the ambivalent one we complain often about? Can you imagine living in that world. It's a world foreign to us, yet it exists all around us. I don’t know how often I’ve heard people today, completely sure that the end times are near because it is so bad, but it you look at history and you look at many parts of this world you see it much, much worse, much more corrupt, much more divided, much more violent, than anything experience here. . . there is real suffering in the world. . . and there is real oppression and hatred, like this word seems to suggest for us.
So that's suffering, but what about patience. It is interesting that the NRSV committee chose "patience" as the word here because there are many other words for patience used in the New Testament. And this Greek word is also translated in other instances as "resist, standing firm, holding one's ground." That takes on a much more active role than simply being patient, especially when paired with oppression rather than merely suffering. It also can be translated as "abide." Now abide is a word I love, though typically it is a word that is only used in church. How often do you hear about abiding in our world? Abiding means being there in the midst of it all. Being there, with, through thick, through thin, in the heart of it. Going through, seemingly by choice, just to be with and provide comfort. You could leave, but you have chosen to stay, that's abiding. In my church growing up, the church's mission statement was, "We could care less, but we have decided to care more." It seems to me that that is a statement that gets close to the idea of abiding. You could leave, but you have decided to stay. The emperor has literally thrown your neighbor to the dogs, and you could leave, but you have decided to abide with him, through it.
Again that is what Christ does with us. God sees us, sees our plight, and becomes us, becomes one of us, to show us simply, hey I'm here. Don't forget, I'm here. I'll be with you in your suffering, no matter what, no matter how hard. I'm there. When the storm winds blow, I'm there, when persecution falls I'm there, when disease strips you bare, I'm there. Awesome, truly amazing, but yet we run from suffering. We run from suffering avoiding by any means necessary. Why? Oh yeah it doesn't sell. Perhaps it's just that we are not buying. We are not buying the fact that God's purpose could include suffering for us, what if it does, what if it does simply because we need to be reminded that God is there, that God is there, abiding, and has us in the palm of his hand, right there beside us in all things. This passage is not saying, hey avoid suffering at all costs, but once in bear it, instead it is saying go find suffering, be there in the midst of it, be strengthened by it, and find God in it.
I know it doesn’t sell, but there is much to suffering that changes the world. How many times do we see that in the midst of the worst things that happen, terrorist attacks, flooding, earthquakes, hurricanes, mass shootings, that the best of people comes out. I know it sounds weird, but I often in some ways yearn for suffering, because it is real, and you’d know that you were in it. There is real strength in a situation like that where there is no way of avoiding it any more, where there is no exit, no escape hatch, no reset button, there is nothing to do but be in it, in someways we yearn for such in life because it is life, and it is in such times where we feel the most alive, but we have an aversion to life like that often, we grow comfortable in our status quo, and what we have attained, what we have accumulated, and we fear losing it, we hold onto all of these things, and we become trapped by them, kept away from life. . .

So here I am on the Sunday before Thanksgiving saying, we need to embrace suffering, seek it out, and therefore of course be grateful for it. I know that, that is a tough sell, but I am giving it a shot this morning because there is life in it, and all life demands that we give thanks for it, get down on our knees and thank the Lord, that we suffer, for in suffering we find that life that he gave us, and the strength that we need to forget about all the small concerns of our daily lives, and remember again, what it is that truly matters. That God loves us, sent his son to suffer with us, and that we then can love like our lives depend on it. Praise be to God, Amen. 

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.
Amen.

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,
“Hallelujah!
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,
“Hallelujah!
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,
“Hallelujah!
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.