Saturday, October 14, 2017

An Old Swinging Bridge (For Erin)

An Old Swinging Bridge
For Erin

A bridge stands at the river’s rightward bend.
Technically it forks there, but straight and left
The stagnant water stands still to end in mud
Still in view, unless that is, the water’s high,
While the river just falls and pours to the right,
Shallow and fast, it is low enough to ford, but
High enough to send you around that bend
Into unknown darker shadowed waters,
If you don’t paddle quick enough to shore.
Rivers work like that, and single life flows as such,
Choices  you make, dead-ends, and mysteries,
Where one’s life races seemingly out of control
Around a new bend, or slows into a muddy slough.
But side by side, you join hands and help each other
To shore, holding cold beers in the other hand,
You walk together, soggy river shoes sloshing,
Across the rocks, and through the well-worn path
To walk the bridge that swings in the breeze above.
Marriage is that old swinging bridge spanning
The river, connecting two distant banks,
And beckoning new couples to plant their
Four feet firmly on those old worn boards above.
If the bridge is marriage, then the great iron towers
Are love, rising out of the ground to hold it all up,
The foundation, rooted in the ground on both sides.
The cables that suspend across and give extension
Are parallel—these the cords of faith and hope.
Faith extends out from love, and knows its grip
Has been firm, and hope stands beside it, knowing
Love’s purposes perfectly work themselves forward
Across any chasm or above the river racing below.
To each side is a metal screen, guides to keep you
Safe and secure—these your vows, wherein safe
Inside you stay, though you can see where others
Have bent them down, thinking adventure awaits
For those who jump back into the stream below.
The temptation is real, for you can see, if you look,
All the other fish, swimming together there, carefree
In the cool, clear water below. And you don’t see
The danger, for the bodies of the fallen have washed
Away down-stream long before, but they left behind
Their legacy of temptation in the screen’s bent wires.
The wooden boards mark the path your feet tread,
And you find that some of these boards, through time
Are broken or missing. The challenges of marriage
Are real, and there are times when the best laid plans
Fall through, literally, but you never see two boards
Fallen out together. When those times come, lean in,
Hold on, grasp tightly, and forever cling to love,
To each other, and you will find security in the other,
And your ever-clinging arms. Just never let go, and you
Will become a beacon for those floating down stream,
They will see you standing and find comfort there, and
See hope, that someone else has made it, and stands
Ready, always to pick them up and give them a lift back
In his truck to camp to start their journey over again.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Inching Nearer

Inching Nearer

A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson

October 8, 2017

at Bethany Presbyterian Church, Zuni, Virginia

Deuteronomy 26: 1-11

Luke 12: 22-32

Let us pray,

Help us to see despite our eyes

Help us to think outside of our minds

Help us to be more than our lives   

For your eyes show the way

    Your mind knows the truth

    Your being is the life.


Man I love that song, Nearer My God to Thee, Nearer to Thee. What more could we want? For what more can we ask? A few weeks ago after my Sunday School class I had a great, though brief discussion, brief because we were running to make sure we could get everything done and make it to church on time. . . and I had to get robed and choired up, and Debbie was waiting for me. . . but it was a great question. . . we had been talking about the serpent in the Garden of Eden, talked about how the story of the fall of the angels is mostly from tradition and not Biblical. . . but the question had to do with what salvation is, and if it is only dying and going to heaven, and I realize, that word “only” there, “only heaven” is a bit problematic to say the least, but the question is how do we know that the rebellion, or the sin in the garden, our own choice of the other, wouldn’t happen again? In other words we are given the gift of grace, salvation, paradise, etc. . . but what if we don’t want it? What if our hearts desire something else still? Without a change of our hearts to make us desire God, desire the good, heaven is merely an eternity of goodness that we may not want, may somewhere in our heart of hearts resist, reject, or even grow to despise . . . you know you are doing some good things in Sunday School when it sparks questions like that. But to me that exactly is what the Nearer my God to thee hymn is all about, draw me nearer, draw my heart nearer, make my heart, my will, my life to be completely thine, even though it be a cross that raises me, draw me nearer, if not all at once, then at least nearer, day by day, or inch by inch. And it echoes Away in a Manger, you know from Christmas, where it says, fit us for heaven to live with thee there. Change our hearts. . .

So I wanted to leave behind the Marks of a Christian for today, we’ll pick back up with it next week, but today I wanted to do something special,  since it is a special occasion in my life and in the life of this church, for today we finish the job of getting hitched, and begin our work, our ministry together proper. . . and I wanted to let you all know something a little bit more about me, and my journey, that has led me here. . . give my testimony, as it were. Just a month shy of 6 years ago I was ordained and installed in Gordonsville, and on that day I gave a sermon called God’s epic, which described my life up until that moment, and how God’s path for me was winding and dragging, and full of twists and turns that brought me there. . . it seemed appropriate. And a few weeks ago when I went with Wayne to the revival over in Suffolk, they had guys get up and give what was their testimony. One guy talked about how his mother was praying for him, and he was wild, but she kept praying, and everybody said amen, and then he said you ever had a righteous Christian woman praying for you? And every body laughed, and then he said your life is going to change, jack. . . again amens. . . and then he said how he was running, let me tell you was I running, but the Lord was faster, again laughs and amen, and he said it didn’t matter where I was running, it didn’t matter whether I’d turn to the right, or to the left, around this corner, or that corner, in the end I was going to turn to him, and that I did, and that was 22 years ago, and I haven’t strayed from that path one single solitary minute, one single day, I’ve served him from that day when I gave him my heart. . . on a night just like tonight, with a mother praying for me, and you can too, cuz I bet you’ve got a mother praying for you, and I bet you got a grandmother, and a hundred other ladies, and they all praying for you, will you give your heart to Jesus? Will you turn to him? Like I did all those years ago? I want to see you make that pledge, make that statement, turn yourself, because I don’t want to see you burn in eternal hell fire, no we want to save your soul for Jesus tonight. . . .

I don’t have a story like that to tell. . . My story is more like the beginning to a Johnny Cash song, no not that one, and no not that one either, but it starts with a little monologue. . . he says

One night after a concert
I walked through the streets of the town
And came upon a little church

The service was over but the testimonials had just begun
People caught up in the spirit of the night
Just didn't want to leave
So I stepped inside the door
And sat down by a little old lady in the back

A man stood up in front and said
I just want all of you to know that
I'm going straight to heaven as fast as I can go
Like an arrow shot from a bow and he sat down

Another man stood up and said
I'm sailin' right straight into heaven
Like a giant clipper ship, sailin' on a sea of blue
And nothin's gonna deter me or keep me from that safe harbor

He sat down and another man stood up and said
I'm flyin' into the portals of heaven on silver wings
Sailin' over all the troubles and trials down below
Straight on in and he sat down

The little lady beside me made it to her feet slowly
And all got quiet as she raised her face
Not to the preacher or the congregation
But toward heaven and prayerfully said

I'm comin', Lord for my heavenly reward
I'm on my way to You, can You see me comin' through?
Through clouds of persecution and stumblin' on the way
But I expect I'm makin' 'bout a half a mile a day

The road to Heaven doesn't have a rapid transit plan
It's one way with no changes goin' to the promised land
But I believe that if I'll heed the things He had to say
Even I might get to Heaven at a half a mile a day

For me it is a struggle. . . a path. . . a journey, and everyday presents its own battles. . . but one thing is great and sure, and that is my salvation was paid for not by any words I can say out loud, not by my momma praying for me, though I’m sure she did, all the time, not caught up in the frenzy of a moment, not from my purchasing an insurance policy out of fear that I may go to hell, but by the cross, by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, by an act of a sovereign, all powerful God full of steadfast love, and that is the same for you. . . and now my heart needs to come to come to terms with what it means to live in this world of Grace. . . and that, for me at least, is difficult, its difficult because I make it difficult. . . it doesn’t much matter, because I’m going, its like one of my favorite movies, Gettysburg. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain is a union Colonel from Maine, actually a professor at Bowdoin College, and he is famous for being tasked in the Battle of Gettysburg on the Second day to hold the Heights of Little Round Top, the extreme Left Flank of the Union line, and he does, it is a harrowing battle, they run out of ammunition, do a bayonet charge, and some how hold on. But all that is in the future at this point in the movie. The battle has not begun and they are on the march through northern Maryland, and they are told to deal with 200 prisoners, mutineers, other Maine men, who have been treated poorly they believe by the army, and have refused to fight, he is told that if they don’t want to come, he can shoot them, now he knows that he can’t do that. . . and he wonders if they do. This is what he says. . .

I've been ordered to take you men with me, I'm told that if you don't come I can shoot you. Well, you know I won't do that. Maybe somebody else will, but I won't, so that's that. Here's the situation, the Whole Reb army is up that road aways waiting for us, so this is no time for an argument like this, I tell you. We could surely use you fellahs, we're now well below half strength. Whether you fight or not, that's up to you, whether you come along is... well, you're coming.

I love that, well you’re coming, that seems to be the way God works with us, kinda like Jonah, I want you to go to Nineveh. . . but I don’t want to, I flee, I, they, what if, . . . no your going. . . he brings us along, he does what he can to change our hearts along the way, but the truth is “we’re coming”. My story is like that, whether it is Nearer my God to thee, as my devout wish, A half a mile a day, or well, you’re coming. . . I think you get the idea.

How do we live in a world of grace? How do we allow our hearts to turn to God in such a world as this, where our hearts seem for some reason to want fairness, and instead God gives us grace? We say we want fairness, but our sense of fairness, our perspective of fairness doesn’t really ever see the whole picture, and include our shortcomings. I mentioned Jonah, he goes through it, prophesies to Nineveh, and then is irritated because God didn’t smite them. . . it isn’t fair. . . but do we really want fair? I mean we see how Jonah is behaving, can we see such things in ourselves? In the mirror? Perhaps

I believe coming to terms with living in a world of Grace is about two things. . . Gratitude and Faith. . . and our Scripture lessons put this into context. . . first the Old Testament: Deuteronomy 26: 1-11. . .

26 When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name. You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, “Today I declare to the Lord your God that I have come into the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us.” When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the Lord your God, you shall make this response before the Lord your God: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. 10 So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.” You shall set it down before the Lord your God and bow down before the Lord your God. 11 Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house.

There is the gratitude part right. You recall your history, recall where you have been, and see God’s hand at work, a hand of action, a hand of steadfast love, a hand of Grace. . . brought you up out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an out stretched arm. . . thank you God, thank you for this land, this milk and honey. . . and you bring the first fruits not out of obligation, but by gratitude, and you share with the Levites and the aliens, because grace is something learned by extension. . . when you give it you come to learn something about it, but again, not by obligation, but through gratitude, we even say it this way when we conjugate the word, we say with a gracious heart. . . not gratitudenal, but gracious. . .

So that is gratitude, now faith. . . this comes from Luke 12: 22-32. . . a well known passage from the sermon on the plain.

22 He said to his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. 23 For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. 24 Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! 25 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 26 If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest? 27 Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 28 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith! 29 And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. 30 For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. 31 Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.

32 “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.

I love that phrase at the end. . . Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to the give you the kingdom. . . gratitude is looking back on your life and seeing the role of grace in it and being thankful, having your heart full of thanks, so much so that it is over flowing. . . faith on the other hand, is taking that idea of grace, and sending it out into the rest of your life, into the future, into the unknown, and not limiting God to what he has already done, but relying on the fact that God’s grace extends forward and is boundless. That is it right, that is the crux of this statement from Jesus. . . do not worry. . . life is more than food, the body is more than clothes. . . look to the birds, but doesn’t God love you more than the birds. . . yes. If you can’t add to  your life by worrying, why worry about the rest. . . Life is an act of grace, and everything, gratitude is seeing it as an act of grace and being thankful, faith is understanding that God’s love knows no bounds, being there now and forever to supply your path. You of little faith, he says, and do not be afraid little flock. . . faith allows us to cast out fear, so we would not be controlled by our fears. . . The choir sang it song perfectly this morning. . . Your grace has brought us safe thus far, your grace will lead us home.

I was asked at Blue Ridge for the Year Book one year for a quote, about life. I had a reputation as the deep teacher, who would blow student’s minds, and they wanted something from me along those lines, the question was how would you tell the story of your life. . . what I gave them is printed in the bulletin:

"Since all life is a work of creation, a word spoken, and light made from darkness, pronounced good, I would arrange the chapters of my own life so that it would reveal to the reader and testify to the world that ongoing connected cycle of truth, making sure that the reader could see that even in the darkest places of intense struggle, the seeds of light are always being planted, that the hardest struggles are where life is lived, where light begins to shine, rooted in love, and the rest is a blessed journey we get to share together just to learn how to give ourselves in love even in those darkest moments—in other words the order it was lived because truth need not be framed."

Big words, but I guess I’ve taken great pains this morning to frame this, I guess to make sure you would see that message ringing through, that life is a journey of light shining out of darkness, where each struggle brings us nearer our God thee, maybe a half a mile a day, or may just inch by inch, but no matter how much we struggle against it. . . well, you’re coming. So if I look back on my life I do see those patterns at work, it is impossible not to. The times of some of the most pain were times when I was being drawn nearer. My call to ministry beginning in some way shape and form in 2003 when I lost my best friend to a workplace accident, and two weeks later my closest student to a car accident. I never would have left Christchurch, I was comfortable there, I was doing every thing I thought I ever aspired to do, I had only ever wanted to coach football and baseball and teach, I never would have left it, had I not had a troubled roommate situation, and a Pompous Ivy League grad English Department Head, who was obnoxious, he ended up clearing out the whole department including himself. But I said this all has been a struggle, because at the time these things broke me. I was filled with worry, fear, and despair, but looking back I was brought nearer, nearer to thee. . . I don’t want to go to seminary, well, your coming. . . deciding to go, and then meeting DeAnna right before, so I was moving to Richmond, but still hanging on to the Tidewater area, struggles and loneliness, a summer in New York, but it also leading to a great opportunity in Hampton, couldn’t have worked any other way, and all those times driving back and forth, they were long, but each drew me nearer, for I found there the skills and experiences I would come to need so much, and then getting out and not being ready for ordination, heading back to teaching, but finding that the things I wanted to do, I couldn’t do without it. . . and then God finding the perfect window to pull me through, the paired career with Gordonsville and Blue Ridge. It couldn’t have worked any other way than what it did, but there were also times when it didn’t work. When I’d be on the 7th or 8th straight week of working 7 days a week, and if I was working 7 days that meant DeAnna was too, so there was really no break with two kids, and then with 3, forget about it. . . and each of those births were moments of fear, doubt, and worry. . . Coralee because it was taking too long, Clara because she didn’t breathe right away, all prepared me in some way shape or form to Susanna coming faster than the midwife could get there, and me catching her, and passing her back to DeAnna as fast as I could. . . You see each of those in the order they happened was a perfect example of grace, and my response to each in the moment was of trepidation, worry, fear, why me, this is too hard, I want out, change this, you got to fix this, but instead he said, Pete, whether you fight or not its up to you, but whether you come along is, well, you’re coming.

And that leads me to this last step, coming here to Bethany, because it’s not like you decide you want to leave a church, you pick a church and go, the process for choosing a new church is long and twisting with many turns, and false findings. And I know the parallel journey of seeking a new pastor for your church is winding as well, but now we stand here, brought together, and we can face the future with uncertainty, wondering where we’re heading, trying to control, and plan, and verify it is the right time to do this or that, we can worry about the future, or we can look back at the journey and let that give us confidence that the same hand which has led us up to this point, will continue to lead us, and whether or not we fight him, its well you’re coming. . .

I want to close with a poem from my absolute favorite poem, he comes at these ideas from a completely different path, but I think in this poem he comes close to what we’ve been talking about. It’s called Diaologue of Self and Soul, and the poet is William Butler Yeats, he writes a the end of that poem, here the self is speaking:


I am content to live it all again
And yet again, if it be life to pitch
Into the frog-spawn of a blind man's ditch,
A blind man battering blind men;
Or into that most fecund ditch of all,
The folly that man does
Or must suffer, if he woos
A proud woman not kindred of his soul.
I am content to follow to its source
Every event in action or in thought;
Measure the lot; forgive myself the lot!
When such as I cast out remorse
So great a sweetness flows into the breast
We must laugh and we must sing,
We are blest by everything,
Everything we look upon is blest.

As I said, he is coming from a different angle, but what he is saying is, when you can look back on your life and forgive yourself, willing to do it all over again, casting out remorse, you are giving up control, and at that point everything you do is blessed, because it has been led, it is God living in you, and where you are right now is where he has led you, and will continue to lead us, here at Bethany in this new ministry together. May it Be So, Amen.

Monday, October 2, 2017

To That Rock I'm Clinging

To That Rock I’m Clinging

A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson

October 1, 2017

at Bethany Presbyterian Church, Zuni, Virginia

2 Samuel 7: 4-7

Matthew 5: 38-42

Let us pray,

Help us to see despite our eyes

Help us to think outside of our minds

Help us to be more than our lives   

For your eyes show the way

    Your mind knows the truth

    Your being is the life.


As we have been going through the Apostle Paul’s “marks of a Christian” according to his letter to the Romans, we have begun each week with reading that full passage. So again this morning here are the marks, Romans 12: 9-21:

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 far we have gotten through all of the first verse, which is verse 9. . . “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good;” last week we talked of the importance of hating what is evil, setting up your life in aversion to whatever is evil, and we looked at how that can be problematic, because so often hating, itself, can become a slippery slope, that if you are hating evil, the very act of hating, can slip slide into evil itself, and that you can become quickly the very thing you were opposing so valiantly, and as if Paul knows that tendency, and I think he does, he follows the hating what is evil, with hold fast to what is good. And actually I really like the NIV translation of this, not “hold fast” but “cling” as if you might lose your grip, as if it might be difficult to hold on, as if you are hanging out over a precipice and your very life, your very well being depends upon you holding on, there you hang, clinging with all of your might to the good. I like that imagery because history I think shows us that the human grip on the good is constantly in danger because letting go is easier, more comfortable, less challenging, more efficient, effective, expeditious, or what is so often the case, it just seems to us like there is no reason to cling to the good, we might as well let go because we can convince ourselves that it doesn’t matter anyway, there is no precipice, there is no risk, we are ok.

I want to look at a few examples from human history where people lost this battle. They found themselves to be good, okay, set, and stopped clinging to the good. The first I want to look at is our Old Testament lesson from this morning. . . Here we find King David, with all of the success that God has given him. At this point he has defeated Goliath, been lifted by God from a little shepherd boy to King of Israel, having risen above Saul, because he was chosen by God. He has risen to the top. . . and you could say he grows comfortable. But look at what God tells him here at the high water mark of his career as king. And I know that your bulletin only has v. 4-7, but I’m going to include a little bit more for the sake of context. . . This is 2 Samuel 7: 4-16

But that same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan: Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders[a] of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?” Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: Thus says the Lord of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. 10 And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly, 11 from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. 12 When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. 13 He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. 14 I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. When he commits iniquity, I will punish him with a rod such as mortals use, with blows inflicted by human beings. 15 But I will not take[b] my steadfast love from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. 16 Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me;[c] your throne shall be established forever.

This is the great covenant that God makes with David, recalling how God has been with him from the beginning, but look at what David had wanted to do. He wanted to build a house for God, a temple, he looks at his own situation, in the palace, and cannot understand why God would dwell in just that old tabernacle that had been through so much. He sees that as problematic, an injustice, and he thinks it is his duty to set things right. . . and it is response to this that God reminds him of his place. . . I have done all this for you, I have pulled you from following sheep to set you in the palace, put the crown on your head. . . do not think that it is your place to build a palace for me. It is so interesting right, why wouldn’t David out of thanksgiving build God a temple? Why would that be wrong? How could it be wrong? But God knows. . . he knows us so well. He knows that when we find ourselves in power, we start with good intentions, but then we lose grip on the good really fast, before we even realize. God knows this about David, I believe, and promises here that the covenant will be strong, even in his son, but there is danger in giving too much power to a man of action like David has been.. . a man of action has needed to be effective, pragmatic, efficient, and it is too often the case that a man of action can forget the good, the God, that made all of the success possible in the first place, and begin to take credit himself. Or maybe it is just possible that God knows the next pieces of David’s story. It is in the next chapter, early in the reign that David lusts after Bathsheba, commits adultery with her, and has her husband, one of David’s most important military officers, Uriah the Hitite, killed, not even by David’s own hand, but by cowardly putting him forward in the battle. So despicable. . . and then the story of Absolom’s rebellion. . . David struggles with clinging to the good, he waivers, and goes back and forth. God’s steadfast love is solid, but David like so many of us does not continuously cling to the good.

And David falls away from the good when all is going well, but so often it is the other way around. . . sometimes in success we lose our grip, and sometimes in trials. . . Think of the Israelites having been freed from Egypt, suffering in the desert, they lose faith and wish instead for the chains in Egypt that they have left behind. . . Things start to get bad and there must be another way, an easier way, a way that seems so right in the moment, but is not the good. What about not just when things are going well, or things are going badly, but what about when someone hurts you, when someone else behaves badly to you, acts against you, does that give you the excuse to change your actions, how hard is it to cling to the good then? This leads me to the New Testament Lesson, this one of the famous passages from the Sermon on the Mount. . .

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

So I said something about the danger of letting go of the good when everything is going well, and I said something about the challenge of clinging to the good when everything is falling apart and you are facing challenges, but what about when someone has just smacked you in the face. Literally or figuratively, what then? What about when the person you are working for, after a long day of working hard, tells you to come and put in a little over time, but for no pay, just because you are needed, what about clinging to the good, then, clinging to what you know is right after someone has stolen your coat? Could you still live free and open, or would you lock every door? Could you cling to the good while having to go that extra mile? Could you cling to the good enough to turn that other cheek? Why is it so important to cling to the good? Frankly because rarely do people do so, and the result is our world. . . with all its cycles of evil, injustice, and misfortune. . . Good is what breaks those cycles, sometimes it’s on a small and personal level. . . a friendship that breaks apart ends in a grudge, but sometimes it’s on a much larger global scale. A few years ago I wrote this poem about this issue, of when things just start to slide away from the good, at first slowly and then. . . well let’s take a look

Progress is not as loathsome as progressive,

Just as active pales in comparison to activist.

When a movement organizes the mob,

Watch Out! Change is gonna come child.

The pendulum will swing the guillotine’s blade,

Removing all obstacles in the path,

But the momentum grows and loses direction

And discretion, then desecration and destruction

Follow, replacing oppression with oppression,

Power with power, corruption with corruption

Human authority with human authority,

And God, who inspired the first steps,

Justice, which pointed out the inherent evils,

Love, which catalyzed the necessity,

Are lost when the blade sweeps side to side

Again and again, throughout human history. 

This is what seems to always happen. We hate injustice, we hate inequality, we hate oppression, we hate the way the powerful are corrupt, we hate the way the world is unfair, we hate the way that people are marginalized, we hate how children across the world are starving, we hate the way our money is spent on wars, we hate how our educational systems are in decline, we hate how money is being wasted, we hate that taxes are going up, that inflation is going up, that the debt is going up, we hate, we hate, we hate. We hate these things but then these things turn into other people, the other side, our opponents, and then we hate them, and we are lost, and God forbid you give power to that hate because then we've all lost, hate goes into action and all of the good intentions of hating injustice are lost, and lost forever, and the guillotine sweeps side to side, again and again and again and again. Because it seems that all we do is hate what is evil, we don't also cling to what is good.

Have you ever noticed how things in today’s world become political and then they all seem to get fuzzy? I think it is because no one clings to the good. . . they get locked up on one thing and then they forget the bottom line, they forget the good. They allow their own unique perspective and anger, to excuse the big picture. The big one in today’s headlines is the National Anthem at NFL games. Does anyone have a clear cut understanding of who is right and who is wrong with this. . . even if you do, even if you wrap yourself in the flag, or if you side with the players and can see the racial injustices that they say they are fighting for, the message has been corrupted because they allowed the good to become second. . . and the message is lost completely. . .It is the same with Statues, global warming, marriage, abortion, etc., because the good is forgotten, rather than positive change, the only thing that comes is more division and hypocrisy. . . the issue takes precedence and the people are lost.

How do we cling to the good? How do we not let ourselves lose the good? I think, and it must because it is so rare, it must take constant vigilance. The wise man built his house upon the rock and the rains came tumbling down. Clinging to the good is building on good foundation, with good soil, good nourishment, and good fruit is produced, likewise evil produces ruin, or as children like to sing, "the rains came down and the floods came up and the house on the sand went "Splat" or was it swing. . . Chop! The Psalms are filled with this same language, in Psalm 34, verse 10: "The young lions suffer want and hunger, but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing."[1][2] Seek the Lord, lack no good thing. Psalm 1 as well:

1     Happy are those

who do not follow the advice of the wicked,

or take the path that sinners tread,

or sit in the seat of scoffers;

2     but their delight is in the law of the Lord,

and on his law they meditate day and night.

3     They are like trees

planted by streams of water,

which yield their fruit in its season,

and their leaves do not wither.

In all that they do, they prosper.[2][3]

If we cling to the good, cling to God there, cling to the cross, there is good fruit within us, each of us, and we will prosper, and we will be able to hate evil without succumbing to evil. If we cling to good, cling to God, we can truly band together in a trusting community. If we cling to good, cling to God, the evil that we hate stands no chance. Only this clinging can stop the human pattern that we are caught up in only this can stop the swinging blade before it again swings and chops. Let us dull the blade, let us cut the rope, let us cling to the good, hate what is evil and love genuinely, both God and our neighbor,

In the Celtic tradition of Christianity, they created traditions of singing prayers. They would have prayers for each of their daily tasks. . . the idea that if they could pray constantly, they could remain vigilant, their daily work would be dedicated to God because they would be praying while doing it, but also their hearts would be clinging to God because they were constantly praying. Sometimes these prayers took the form of songs. . . have you ever had a song stuck in your head? Of course you have. . . how lasting and wonderful could it be if the message of that song was building up your soul, and forging a relationship with God. . . You couldn’t keep from singing, and your life would become a prayer song to God. I took the title of this sermon from an old hymn I’d like to sing for you now, as a way to prepare for Communion and coming to the table. . . How can I keep from Singing?

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Hating Evil

Hating Evil

A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson

September 24, 2017

at Bethany Presbyterian Church, Zuni, Virginia

Proverbs 1: 8-19

Luke 11: 14-23

Let us pray,

Help us to see despite our eyes

Help us to think outside of our minds

Help us to be more than our lives   

For your eyes show the way

    Your mind knows the truth

    Your being is the life.


As we continue our journey, through Paul’s marks of a Christian from his letter to the Romans, I want to, each week read the passage, so that we can see where we have been, where we are, and were we are headed. So here is Romans 12: 9-21, again, because it still hasn’t gotten old yet. . . maybe it will, for it is a long road we are taking. . .

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 we are focusing on “hate what is evil” which is an interesting thing because in today’s world, many people are convinced that “hate” is in fact “what is evil,” but here we are missing an is there, instead it says clearly hate what is evil, and that leads us to the all important question, what is evil? I remember distinctly that in Psalm 23 it says clearly, that though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil. . . and I know in the Lord’s prayer it says deliver us from evil. . . but what is evil? And what does it mean to hate it? For hate it but don’t fear it, and hate it, while asking deliverance from it. . . what is evil? That’s a pretty good question right, and one that has to do with wisdom, as if the wise would know. . . so let’s go to the book of the Bible that is most about wisdom, Proverbs, and see what it says is evil. This is in the first chapter of proverbs, and in my Bible it has the subtitle, “warning against Evil Companions” this is verse 8-19

Hear, my child, your father’s instruction,
    and do not reject your mother’s teaching;
for they are a fair garland for your head,
    and pendants for your neck.
10 My child, if sinners entice you,
    do not consent.
11 If they say, “Come with us, let us lie in wait for blood;
    let us wantonly ambush the innocent;
12 like Sheol let us swallow them alive
    and whole, like those who go down to the Pit.
13 We shall find all kinds of costly things;
    we shall fill our houses with booty.
14 Throw in your lot among us;
    we will all have one purse”—
15 my child, do not walk in their way,
    keep your foot from their paths;
16 for their feet run to evil,
    and they hurry to shed blood.
17 For in vain is the net baited
    while the bird is looking on;
18 yet they lie in wait—to kill themselves!
    and set an ambush—for their own lives!
19 Such is the end of all who are greedy for gain;
    it takes away the life of its possessors.

So in this evil is a group of bandit like folks who offer you prizes if you will go in with them. . . they will offer you costly things, and they will share, they will promise that if you throw in your lot with us, we will all have one purse. . . interesting understanding of evil. . . easy perhaps to not fear it, because it is easy to walk away from if you are wary and wise, on your toes with your eyes wide open to weighing the consequences of your actions, and the emptiness of their benevolent, utopia of promises. . . it seems so easy. . . I was flipping around the tv yesterday in the little bit of time that I had to watch some football, and on one of the channels was the old movie Goonies, you know the one where the kids go seek to find the sunken pirate treasure of Old One-Eyed Willie, and are hunted from behind by the escaped from prison convict family, the Fratelli’s. . . it is easy to tell the clever, resourceful kids, from the cruel and bumbling bandits, its always easy in the movies, but what if those bandits aren’t so easy to spot, like they often aren’t in real life. . .

Now let’s look to our Gospel Text, Luke 11: 14-23

14 Now he was casting out a demon that was mute; when the demon had gone out, the one who had been mute spoke, and the crowds were amazed. 15 But some of them said, “He casts out demons by Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons.” 16 Others, to test him, kept demanding from him a sign from heaven. 17 But he knew what they were thinking and said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself becomes a desert, and house falls on house. 18 If Satan also is divided against himself, how will his kingdom stand? —for you say that I cast out the demons by Beelzebul. 19 Now if I cast out the demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your exorcists cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. 20 But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out the demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you. 21 When a strong man, fully armed, guards his castle, his property is safe. 22 But when one stronger than he attacks him and overpowers him, he takes away his armor in which he trusted and divides his plunder. 23 Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.

"Whoever is not with me is against me," those are difficult words in today's world, aren't they? There are some people who would hear me say “hate what is evil,” and then say, “whoever is not with me is against me,”  and start hating me, because in our world we’ve already said people think hate is evil, another thing many thing is evil is Division. . . and these words from Jesus are the kind of words that separate people rather than bringing them together, building that fence right between, with and against, us and them, and believe it or not, here we see Jesus saying these exact words, and in our text for this Sunday we have, "Hate what is evil." So here we are in week 2 of our marks of a Christian series and we've already stumbled on some challenging stuff. If last week's cry for us to live, love, and be genuine wasn't hard enough, here we are this week having to hate evil. The Luke passage seems to paint a simple picture of it all. Have you ever thought that if you were a character in the Bible, faith, the walk, being a Christian, all of it would be so much simpler? When you have demons self identifying, and you have Beelzebub and Satan rearing their ugly heads in the light of day and in public, it is so much easier to spot evil. Or if we could be in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, there would be a ring that is evil and we could destroy it, or maybe even be Batman in Gotham City, there'd be tons of villains to defeat, and they are all the ones with the crazy identifying marks, like penguins and jokers and riddlers and such, or in some western where we know that evil is the guy on the black horse. Or if we could be Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, it is obvious who the enemy is, the empire and Darth Vader, easy enough go fight them, hate them, destroy them. They are evil and we know it, but our world is more like the world where all of a sudden Darth Vader turns to Luke and says, "I'm Your Father" in those immortal words of The Empire Strikes Back. Now everything that he thought he knew about evil has been turned upside down, and his new mission is not just to defeat evil, but to redeem the man who was his father, hating evil, but looking for the possibility of goodness behind the evil mask.

Such is our post modern world. It is hard for us to know what evil is. It seems harsh to us to label anything or anybody as evil, but here in this passage we are called, that one of the marks of a Christian is to "Hate what is evil," but what is evil?

On my final exam for my World Literature students when I was teaching I always gave them a final exam where they had to answer challenging questions from their own point of view, and I promised them that I would not grade them on what their opinion was, like whether I agreed with them or not, but instead on how well they expressed one definitive idea, hopefully their own, whatever they felt they wanted to say. I’d ask all kinds of things, sometimes about the nature of education, sometimes about character and ethical issues. I remember, one of my truly favorite questions, because I always got good responses was the question, “Are you a good person?” Always got the best. . . but one time I got this Korean kid, who had always been so well mannered and respectful. . . He answered that questions saying no, I am not a good person because I get envious and jealous of other people and I can’t help myself. Like if someone is playing guitar, I always think that I could play better than them, even if I really can’t, and if they are better than me, I get really nasty, like when Mr. Atkinson sings, I think to myself, the only reason he can sing like that is because of his big fat belly. . . I think something like that and then I feel better, so yeah I’m not a good person, to have to bring somebody down and not just be happy for them. . . . I was amazed, I thought that was the best answer I have ever gotten, so out of his typical outward persona, but so honest. . . and it made me laugh which always was worth extra points.

But one time I remember I posed a question to them about the nature of evil. I chose four quotes to frame the question, then the question. I want to share the question with us as a way to start getting at what evil is. I used the quotes to get them thinking. I'll do the same for us this morning. Each Quote gets at a different idea of what evil is.

"Evil is a point of view" -- Anne Rice
"Many evil things there are that your strong walls and bright swords do not stay." -- J.R.R. Tolkien
"What we call evil, it seems to me, is simply ignorance bumping its head in the dark." -- Henry Ford
"Nature, in her indifference, makes no distinction between good and evil." -- Anatole France
"The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." -- Edmund Burke

 Here is the question I asked them:

Does evil exist? If it does what is its source? Does man have a responsibility to do anything in relation to evil? If evil does not exist, why is there suffering in the world?

 How would you answer that? Have you ever thought about it? If you look at your bulletin I chose three of the responses and printed them there for you. These are direct quotations from three of my students, and I chose them because they get at three different sides of the fence, if a fence has three sides. . .

The first one says:

"Evil is the opposite of love. To give yourself completely is love. Taking in completely, on the other hand, is evil. When one spreads love by giving to all rather than taking from all, then joy can be found in the world." 

I liked that one. It seemed like a definition of evil that could be positive and beneficial. He really gets at some of the main ideas of what I had hoped to teach them, but isn't hate truly the opposite of love, and if so, how can you hate evil, as we are called to do without become evil yourself. . . Problematic, but let's keep that idea on the back burner as we proceed.

The next two seem to reflect two popular secular ideas about what evil is if it exists at all. The student writes:

"There are opinions of evil and what evil things are, but there is nothing in the world everyone can agree is evil. There are too many different aspects of life to say one thing is good or evil because one thing that may be helping one person could be destroying another person and vice versa." 

He is basically holding up the relativists point of view, very popular today. Evil is a mere matter of opinion, and since there are so many different opinions, then there must be no such thing as something that is absolutely evil, and by the way there is nothing absolutely good either, and no absolute truth. Very prevalent among my students.

Leaving us with the third student, which is very similar to the second, just more informed, from a anthropology standpoint, more educated, erudite, and intellectually honest, yet arrogant, if you didn't think so just ask him, writing. . .

"Evil exists only because we have made a "moral scale" or "system" to measure how good or bad something is on a level of the society's standards." 

Basically he is saying, like student number 2, just going one step further, stating that we as a society determine evil, based on our society's standards, but you can see from his use of quotation marks, that he sees moral scale and system as a bogus artificial made up kind of thing that those in power use over those who lack power, but there is no truth behind it. They are merely arbitrary standards that have seemed to work for us, maybe, or at least until we evolve and don't need them anymore.

Again I'll pose the question to you all. What is evil? Does it exist? Is it real? Is it one thing or many? Is it easily definable? Is it embodied in a devil type character, you know a little red dude who lives beneath the ground, but comes up to haunt and scare, or to sit on our shoulders and debate with the little cartoon angel we have on the other shoulder? Or is evil within human beings? Is it merely a manifestation of human sin? Do you know evil when you see it? Can you look at an event or a person or an idea and say, that's evil? Was Adolf Hitler evil? Is driving an airplane into skyscrapers in the middle of a normal workday morning evil? Is the persecution of Christians evil, the beheading of innocents? Is the systematic slaughter of a race evil? Is slavery evil? Yes, Yes, Yes. It seems to me that the relative argument only exists in the vacuum of a philosophical academic discussion because when you start looking at examples of evil, it is not hard to find and distinguish them. It may be uncomfortable; it may be easier to avoid the topic of evil altogether.

One thing that is interesting in our marks of a Christian passage is that the word Evil is used twice. . . here with ours today, hate what is evil, and then at the very end where it says, “do not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good.” Hmmm, he plot thickens. . . so if we were to take these together, we’d have to hate what is evil, but somehow not be overcome by it, quite a challenge I think. . . because that hate slope is a slippery one, and it is easy to become the very thing you are fighting against. . . it is just true about human nature. . . and this is something I want us to remember as we go forward because these can and probably should be thought of in the same context, and they definitely are related, but despite that I’m going do everything I can to separate them because there is something that must be said, though I don’t necessary want to. . . because it just makes an already challenging text, more so, and that is that they are completely different words in the original language of Greek. . .

The Greeks actually have two words for evil, and both are used right here  within the confines of our passage. These words for evil from the original Greek language are actually two completely different words. In "hate what is evil" you have "poneros" used for evil, and in "do not be overcome by evil" you have a completely different word entirely, "kakos." Getting at the difference between these two words gives us a deeper insight into what is going on in this text. I looked at a lot of different sources to get to the bottom of the difference between these words. According to Strong's Greek Lexicon, the difference is Kakos describes the quality according to its nature, poneros, according to its effects. In other words Kakos is describing evil in a person, and in that being a person who is less than what they were created to be, something missing, and Poneros refers with the hazardous effects of wicked or evil deeds.

When we read this passage like this we seem to be more in line with the overall Gospel message of loving our neighbor, and/or our enemies, rather than hating them . This passage is not asking us to hate people, but to hate evil, and its effects, but now what are evil effects? How can we get at what exactly signifies something as evil? "Poneros" gets at things that cause toil, burdens, struggles, pain. We can look at all of those things and see evil right, maybe, but sometimes those struggles, burdens, and pain are the things that make us grow, so that is hardly evil, right? People who suffer no struggle never grow, people who suffer no pain, don't get stronger, people who are unburden seem to shrink and become weaker, mere shades of their former selves, so I have trouble with this narrow idea of the essence of evil. Evil can't just be the things that make us uncomfortable or work harder. To me that is too much like heading into the realm of relativity, you know, I don't like it if it makes me struggle. Evil seems to be bigger, more devastating. Now last night as I was looking through and revising and writing this, I was relooking at this very part, when Clara woke up screaming because her ear was hurting, and we tried drops and all the other things, but it just wouldn’t help, and she was screaming and I was trying to calm her down, not really being able to do much. . . . now I don’t know whether whatever was causing her that pain was evil or not, in this high minded paragraph that I wrote about pain and struggle and their growth effects, but at the time I can tell you I had not problem hating it, and considering it to be evil as it could right well be. So I get that sometimes in the heat of the moment our definition may be different.

But it seems to me that the best way of looking at what is evil, is not just what is burdensome, but what destroys life, both physically and spiritually. If God is good, and created life for living, then destroying life would be the opposite of good, evil. Now let's look at our list of things that I posed as being evil earlier. Hitler--putting the world at war, systematic killing of Jews, repression of human freedom, Hitler's got it all. Driving an airplane into skyscrapers in the middle of a normal workday morning, yes destroying of life, so many lives on that day, but also the after effects, fear, reduction of freedom, invasion of privacy, going to war. Isis over there in the Middle East, their persecution of Christians, the beheading of innocents, driving trucks into crowds, just to kill. It's evil.  And finally slavery, yes the ultimate evil. It destroys the human will and the human spirit because it reduces a human to being a tool. I called slavery the ultimate evil, because though it does not physically kill in most cases, rather it kills everything about what it means to be human. And slavery takes on many forms, chained slavery, slavery to the state, slavery to an idea, slavery of the mind, slavery to fear, and of course slavery to sin.

These are all things that we are called to hate. There is always the danger though, and that is the power of hate to become an evil in itself. . . I started this morning by looking at a few movie versions the struggle between good and evil. Most of them try to show this danger. In The Lord of the Rings there is a constant threat that the ring that Frodo is called to destroy will come to possess him, turning him toward the evil. In Star Wars, Return of the Jedi, when Luke finally faces Vader, his father, and the emperor, the emperor tries to use Luke's hatred of evil to turn him to the Darkside of the force. In both the heroes are faced not only with the evil that they are fighting against but also the capacity for evil that is within them. Frodo and Luke both persevere and resist, but for us there is always that danger. It is just as true for us. As we work hard to try to keep 911 from happening again, we are constantly in threat to become the evil we are fighting. It is not that we aren't supposed to fight evil, we are, but we have to be constantly vigilant that we don't lose ourselves in the fight allowing the hatred of evil to overwhelm us. When we found and killed Osama Bin Laden I wrote the following poem:

Although on this day the free world rejoices,

Part of me stops because being the hand of justice

Is dangerous. It is too much power, and I pray

It will not corrupt as it tends to do. Especially

When justice is wrapped in the flag of vengeance

And the proud man stands above, satisfied,

Taking credit for the triumph of Good over Evil,

But by what means? May we seek a world

Where Evil is overcome with Good, where

Vengeance and Justice are in God’s hands,

For it is only finite justice that we can do,

Temporary, incomplete, and only partial good,

With the shadow of Evil rising again behind us

In the eclipse of our increasing, ever escalating

Misguided, but well intentioned action. 

I'm not saying that he shouldn't have been killed, I'm saying that it was evil to kill him, and we have to hate what is evil, even when it is within ourselves, even when it is a "necessary" evil. It is really easy to let our need for revenge, or our hatred of an evil act transform us, and we can't do that.

This idea leads us straight into our text for next week, which states, "hold fast to what is good." We must because hating evil is a slippery slope, and though we are called to hate what is evil, we know that hatred us leaves us hanging over a pit, and our only chance is to hold fast to what is good. God give us the strength. May it ever be so.