Sunday, December 30, 2012

Hopes and Fears

Hopes and Fears
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
December 30, 2012
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Luke 2:25-35 

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.

25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
29     “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
30     for my eyes have seen your salvation,
31     which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
32     a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.”
33 And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35 so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” [1]  

I realize that this sermon may be a little darker than most Christmas sermons, but maybe it is because I spent Christmas Eve night sick as can be, or maybe it is because as I was writing this last night I had beside me a very sick two year old girl, who at one point in the wee hours of the morning looked up at me in between dry heaves, in tears, asked me to "fix her." Or maybe it is because our world is harsh and bleak, and full of fear and full of hope somehow at the same time.
After this sermon we are going to sing together the old Christmas Carol and Hymn, "O Little Town of Bethlehem." Just as I've been preaching through Advent based on lines from Carols, I wanted to continue with it on this the first Sunday of the Christmas season. "O Little Town of Bethlehem" was written by an Episcopalian preacher from Boston named Phillip Brooks in 1868. He had visited the Holy Land, three years earlier during Christmas, traveling to Bethlehem on Christmas Eve and was struck by the peace and beauty of being so close to the actual spot where Christ was born. He was deeply moved by the experience, so three years later when seeking to find a way to preach anew the Christmas message, he decided that he would write an ode to the town where Christ was born. Then he liked what he had written so much that he had his organist, a man named Lewis, write a tune to it, jokingly telling him that he would name the tune  St. Lewis after him. You'll see that St. Louis is the title because the tune and the words matched so classically and perfectly, and millions since then have been moved by their collaboration.
The line that I want to look at is the last of the first verse, and is "The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight." Hope and Fear met in Bethlehem. Hope and Fear. All at once? Have you ever noticed or thought about this line? It stuck out to me this time, I think, mostly because this advent and Christmas season, I've been more aware of the paradoxes of our faith. All through advent we have been pushed to the limits, noticing how our world seems to fall short of the Christmas ideals, that we are still very much waiting, and now Christmas has come, and we find ourselves still searching for answers, just like we were at the beginning of the Advent season. The miracle of Christmas we find is just as paradoxical as advent is.
It seems to fill us with more questions than it does answers. Just to recap, during advent we started by asking the question, "whom is it that we seek at Christmas," now we ask, have we found definitively whatever and whoever that was? The following week, we looked at Mary's struggle, and how her ordeal was a sign unto her that she was favored, that the idea of being favored and living a life of ease aren't necessarily the same, instead the message culminated in the idea that "to be called is to be favored and to be favored is to be loved, and to be loved is to never be abandoned." Difficult. Then the following week we were called to experience Joy, but found it difficult in the wake of the Elementary School Shooting in Connecticut, called to experience joy, here on Earth, though in the middle of great pain loss and questions. Then last week we looked at Joseph, and how this poor carpenter, by doing the opposite of what most would do, the opposite of the sinful precedent set by Adam, he makes possible the coming of Christ at Christmas, and in the same way provides a Christ-like example of love, but again that example is difficult. Last week's sermon echoed with another pithy phrase, that "faith is doing the difficult thing as if it were easy." Christmas is a time of regular people doing amazing things, alongside God, putting on flesh, humbling himself, and doing ordinary things, like being born, breathing oxygen, being loved by mother and father, surviving harsh realities, all part of our world, our existence, our everyday, all ordinary for us, the dichotomy is truly extraordinary, the impossible becomes possible, and the paradox is what we see as the reality, or at least the paradox becomes how we can sink our teeth into the reality, trying in some way to grasp and understand, all that puzzles us.
Paradox is a great word. It is a word fraught with poetry and thus perfect for people trying to describe the indescribable and trying to define the indefinable. I decided to look paradox up in the dictionary to find the words to get at exactly what it means. The dictionary defined paradox as  "a statement or proposition that seems self-contradictory or absurd but in reality expresses a truth," for instance the truth that both our "hopes" and our "fears" can be "met" in one ancient city, then, 1868 years later, and for us in 2012 heading into 2013, literally "all the years." Hope and fear seem to be divergent concepts, opposites even. Sure you can say they are rooted in the other, like you wouldn't need to hope if you didn't already have fear, but O Little Town of Bethlehem, doesn't say one comes out of the other, but that they are both met, come together, seemingly as equals. How does that work? You may think, well, some people's hopes are met, and other's fears are met. . . those who believe can hope and those who fail to do so will fear. I've heard that type of thinking versed in church before, but is it that simple?
Let's look at our Gospel passage for this morning, known as the Song of Simeon, one of the four such songs, or poetic statements that open the Gospel of Luke. Simeon has just voiced how he was promised to see the Christ, the Messiah before he died, and so he is, and he proclaims that the child will bring "Salvation" to all peoples, "revelation to Gentiles," and "glory to Israel," but then he goes and tells Mary, addressing her, "“This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35 so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” Again does this sound like salvation, falling, rising, opposed, swords piercing souls, and all, it may but at least it is not simple, easy to comprehend, sellable salvation. Here you have another echo of the "O Little Town of Bethlehem" paradox, with "the falling and the rising." It may be easy again to assume that it means that there will be some kind of dividing, that some will rise and others will fall, but it doesn't really say that, it seems to say that the many will be doing both the rising and the falling. . . Does that make us uncomfortable? Does that confuse us? Does that complicate things? Are you reading to rise and fall, or would you be more comfortable with one or the other? Why do we feel the need to explain away the paradox? Is there something in us that makes us uncomfortable with things being outside of our complete grasp? It's much like a chord progression that is left unresolved, we anticipate and feel uncomfortable until it resolves itself. We want that resolution, we want that tied up nice ending, we want the happily ever after, but instead we get the messy paradoxes of relationship. . . Christmas asks can we handle it?
Here is what I mean. . . Christmas doesn't represent the coming of the savior and thus the end of the story, rather it represents the beginning of a new relationship with God, a new revelation of God, and in such a new understanding of God, and that understanding opens up a whole new world of possibilities, and therefore throws out our simple clean tightly gift wrapped ideas of the truth. Although many people would rather the story be over and the truth be easy, Christmas doesn't work like that.
We don't get a conquering hero and a replacement for Rome, instead we get a truth that Rome hadn't imagined, and if anyone thought that they had the world figured out it was the Romans. Knowledge is power, and can be wielded. The Romans took the knowledge of the world up to that point. They took all of the knowledge from the experiences of all the empires that came before them, and they thought that they had it all figured out, and Christmas comes right in the middle of the height of their power. Last week I used the Auden Christmas Oratorio to help get at the character of Joseph, I'd like to use it again to get at the idea of what the Romans thought they knew. Those that came to the Advent study have heard this section of the poem before. Sorry that it is long, but I think it really is indicting to us and our perceptions that we have it all figured out, just like the Romans did. The basic idea is that the Romans had created their Pax Romana because they had conquered "the Seven Kingdoms" and these kingdoms are not countries, but issues that had defeated humans in the past. Each Kingdom is represented in its own stanza:

Great is Caesar: He has conquered Seven Kingdoms.
The First was the Kingdom of Abstract Idea:
Last night it was Tom, Dick and Harry; tonight it is S's With P’s;
Instead of inflexions and accents
There are prepositions and word-order;
Instead of aboriginal objects excluding each other
There are specimens reiterating a type;
Instead of wood-nymphs and river-demons,
There is one unconditioned ground of Being.
Great is Caesar: God must be with Him.  

Great is Caesar: He has conquered Seven Kingdoms.
The Second was the Kingdom of Natural Cause:
Last night it was Sixes and Sevens; tonight it is One and Two;
Instead of saying, "Strange are the whims of the Strong,"
We say, "Harsh is the Law but it is certain";
Instead of building temples, we build laboratories;
Instead of offering sacrifices, we perform experiments;
Instead of reciting prayers, we note pointer-readings;
Our lives are no longer erratic but efficient.
Great is Caesar: God must be with Him.  

Great is Caesar; He has conquered Seven Kingdoms.
The Third was the Kingdom of Infinite Number:
Last night it was Rule-of -Thumb, tonight it is To-a-T;
Instead of Quite-a-lot, there is Exactly-so-many;
Instead of Only-a-few, there is Just-these;
Instead of saying, "You must wait until I have counted,"
We say, "Here you are. You will find this answer correct";
Instead of a nodding acquaintance with a few integers
The Transcendentals are our personal friends.
Great is Caesar: God must be with Him.  

Great is Caesar: He has conquered Seven Kingdoms.
The Fourth was the Kingdom of Credit Exchange:
Last night it was Tit-for-Tat, tonight it is C.O.D.;
When we have a surplus, we need not meet someone with a deficit;
When we have a deficit, we need not meet someone with a surplus;
Instead of heavy treasures, there are paper symbols of value;
Instead of Pay at Once, there is Pay when you can;
Instead of My Neighbour, there is Our Customers;
Instead of Country Fair, there is World Market
Great is Caesar: God must be with Him.  

Great is Caesar; He has conquered Seven Kingdoms.
The Fifth was the Kingdom of Inorganic Giants:
Last night it was Heave-Ho, tonight it is Whee-Spree;
When we want anything, They make it;
When we dislike anything, They change it;
When we want to go anywhere, They carry us;
When the Barbarian invades us, They raise immovable shields;
When we invade the Barbarian, They brandish irresistible swords;
Fate is no longer a fiat of Matter, but a freedom of Mind
Great is Caesar: God must be with Him.  

Great is Caesar: He has conquered Seven Kingdoms.
The Sixth was the Kingdom of Organic Dwarfs:
Last night it was Ouch-Ouch, tonight it is Yum-Yum;
When diseases waylay us, They strike them dead;
When worries intrude on us, They throw them out;
When pain accosts us, They save us from embarrassment;
When we feel like sheep, They make us lions;
When we feel like geldings, They make us stallions;
Spirit is no longer under Flesh, but on top.
Great is Caesar: God must be with Him.  

Great is Caesar: He has conquered Seven Kingdoms.
The Seventh was the Kingdom of Popular Soul:
Last night it was Order-Order, tonight it is Hear-Hear;
When he says, You are happy, we laugh;
When he says, You are wretched, we cry;
When he says, It is true, everyone believes it;
When he says, It is false, no one believes it;
When he says, This is good, this is loved;
When he says, That is bad, that is hated.
Great is Caesar: God must be with Him.

 Did you hear all of them? It is okay if you didn't, but some may have rung true in your ears. When you have the world figured out then you can conquer it, and the Romans did, at least for a while, but they didn't truly have it all figured out because they were blind to the truth of Christmas, even after the Roman Empire became Christianized by Constantine, they thought they could conquer Christian faith too in the same way by force, by adopting it, figuring it all out, simplifying it into rituals, practices, and simple truths. Simple do this and you'll be saved type scenarios. We Christians even protestants are still reeling from much of their simplifying and selling of the message. We Americans are much like those Romans. We have so much figured out. We have solved many of the mysteries of the universe, we've travelled to the moon, we can alter our circumstances, and it seems that we can protect ourselves from all scenarios that come.

Great is America, God must be with us. . .

You hear on the news all the time, the question, is the United States a Christian nation? Usually they are talking about whether mention of God is appropriate on money or in the Pledge of Allegiance, or whether the tree in town square should be called a Christmas Tree or a Holiday tree. I'm less concerned about those trappings because Rome, by the end, had those trappings too, as I said since they had conquered Christianity and had it figured out. I'd rather that we embody the humility of Christ than the name of Christianity. I'd rather us act as if we were still searching for answers, realizing that we have less figured out than we think we do.
I hope that this Christmas reminds us again of the mystery of the incarnation of God, the power of the paradox, and the challenge of the boundlessness of love. That we welcome both our hopes and our fears to the table in our Christmas remembrances. That we see the hope that is inherent in the displayed power and love of God entering our world and becoming one of us, but also the fear that our world is now changed, and that everything we thought we knew for certain is now different, is now expanded, is now living beyond the artificial barriers we built to create our own safety, that beyond those barriers are simply the open arms of true salvation that comes when we take the faithful leap into their loving embrace. Amen.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Lk 2:25-35). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Love Reborn

Love Reborn
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
December 23, 2012
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Genesis 3: 8-13
Matthew 1:18-25 

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.

18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
23     “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”
which means, “God is with us.” 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus. [1]  

It is interesting the details that the different Gospel writers choose to include in their accounts of Jesus' birth. Mark includes no mention of the birth and John employs the famous and poetic in the beginning there was the word prologue, leaving the story to be told by Luke and Matthew. They go together in that they share details that are in no ways at odds with each other, but they simply include different parts of the story. They both have Mary as a Virgin. They both have Bethlehem, but only Luke explains why they young couple is heading there, and they both have the character of Joseph, but there the differences begin. Where Luke mentions the Roman Governor Quirinius, Matthew mentions the rule of Herod. Where Luke shows Shepherds and the Angel Choir, Matthew shows the Wise Men, their gifts, and the star. Where Luke includes much singing and songs of great joy, Matthew's account echoes of the screams of mothers of murdered children, all very different, but the difference I want to focus on today is that Luke seems to be about Mary and her role as the mother of Jesus, Matthew seems to focus more on Joseph, a man who is not the father, nor yet a true husband, but one who reveals dedication, trust, selfless sacrifice, strong and careful protection, wise decision making in crisis, and most importantly, as all of these reveal, a reborn love.
Why do I say reborn love? Let's just say that such devotion of a man for a woman is hard to find in the Bible before this point.  Let's take a walk through some of the Old Testament relationships between women and men. The first starts off good, helpmates and partners and naming the animals, but the precedent set by Adam and Eve is one of distrust and blame. Then Abraham and Sarah, though they walk together and go through many things side by side, their relationship is hardly what we'd call functional. Abraham lies about Sarah calling her his sister at one point, takes on a second woman to mother a child for him at another point, and then takes the kid they have together off to a mountain to sacrifice him. You have a triangle between Jacob, Leah and Rachel, the misfortune and mistreatment of Tamar, David's obsession with Uriah's wife, and the list goes on and on. There are a few exceptions but for the most part the relationship patterns are troubling.
The biggest parallel though is that first one, with Adam and Eve. I thought about titling this sermon: a Tale of Two Husbands. The I could start with an homage to Dickens with It was the best of times it was the worst of times, It was a garden plush with virginal beauty and freedom, it was a desert, tan and sandy occupied and oppressed, but in line with Dickens' love for ironic twists, you will see the man in the best of times behaving badly, without faith or devotion, and Joseph in the deserts of Roman Occupied Judea, acting as a truly righteous saint. You have Joseph showing total devotion to Mary, and true faith in God as well. Let's take a look at the situation.
In the text  we get a glimpse of Joseph's original intention. It says, that Joseph "being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly." Why should he get himself caught up in such a mess? He's a good carpenter, a good catch, he thought Mary was someone he could trust, he could love, he could marry, but events had proven that incorrect, and now the best thing is just to pretend it didn't happen. He doesn't bear her any ill will, just the disappointment you find when someone is not what you thought, in fact less, it hurts but the first step in the healing is to move on, so that is his plan. The Angel appears to him in a dream and tells him to reconsider. The angel in the dream tells him the truth about the child, a wild story about his betrothed wife and the pregnancy: "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”"
In a dream. . . I'm sure we've all here had dreams we remember. Now maybe dreams where angels appear would be different, but my dreams have details that are foggy and strange and hard to understand, even the ones that seem to be real and based on real stuff that I have going on, even the ones that seem so real it's hard to distinguish them from reality, but at the end, when you wake up, it is real easy to dismiss your dreams as, well that was just a dream, and then you go about your daily life, so Joseph's mind changing encounter with the Angel is part of his dream. Mary's on the other hand is a middle of the day, totally awake encounter. She also has the experience of actually being pregnant to give her another clue that what the angel says is actually true. She knows she has never been with a man, and now she is pregnant, she's jammed straight into the middle of a miracle that is impossible to deny, but Joseph isn't. He can get out, but he doesn't. He chooses to stay, he chooses to sacrifice, he chooses faith rather than mistrust and blame, very different from the first relationship as it broke apart in the garden of Eden.
There is something different going on here and it is an important part of the story of Christmas because without Joseph there is no story. Joseph gives Mary the cover of legitimacy in  her pregnancy, when illegitimacy would have resulted in her death either by exposure by being exiled and banished, or the more direct route of being stoned. Then Joseph saves the day again later in Matthew when in another dream he is told by the angel again to get Mary and Jesus out of Bethlehem before Herod comes with his murderous henchmen. So Joseph on two accounts, believes enough and saves the child, whom he did name Jesus, there in the manger in Bethlehem.
Some of you may know, if you came to the first of the Advent Study sessions that I have been borderline obsessed this Christmas season with a poem by W.H. Auden entitled "For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio," that first session we read part of that poem, but we didn't read the part about Joseph. Incidentally, I'm currently writing a devotional book based on the poem, and this week I've been wrestling with the Joseph portion. Providence strikes again. I want to read that section of the poem for you and insert some of my commentary in the middle because it really seems to capture for a modern audience part of what Joseph must have been going through.
The section is titled "THE TEMPTATION OF ST. JOSEPH," and it envisions a modern version of Joseph, in the midst of a Hard Day's Night, and all he wants is to meet his love for dinner, but some strange events bring doubt into his mind, he speaks three times, and each time the Chorus of his thoughts and the voices all around him speaks. I want to share those three Chorus statements, and then Joseph's prayer following directly:
CHORUS (off):
Joseph, you have heard
What Mary says occurred;
Yes, it may be so.
Is it likely? No.  

CHORUS (off) :
Mary may be pure,
But, Joseph, are you sure?
How is one to tell?
Suppose, for instance . . . Well . . .  

CHORUS (off):
Maybe, maybe not.
But, Joseph, you know what
Your world, of course, will say
About you anyway.  

So then Joseph prays. . .
Where are you, Father, where?
Caught in the jealous trap
Of an empty house I hear
As I sit alone in the dark
Everything, everything,
The drip of the bathroom tap,
The creak of the sofa spring,
The wind in the air-shaft, all
Making the same remark
Stupidly, stupidly,
Over and over again.
Father, what have I done?
Answer me, Father, how
Can I answer the tactless wall
Or the pompous furniture now?
Answer them . . .  

               No, you must.  

How then am I to know,
Father, that you are just?
Give me one reason.


All I ask is one
Important and elegant proof
That what my Love had done
Was really at your will
And that your will is Love.  

No, you must believe;
Be silent, and sit still.
Do you hear it? "No, you are on your own with this, you must believe. You must do what Adam couldn't do." Adam chose to throw Eve under the bus when pressed by the circumstances, Joseph has to believe in Mary and take her fate as his own, assuming her plight as his own, assuming either her sin, or her blessing as his own, and not because he knows, not because an angel came to him in the middle of the day and without question let him know the deal, not because he was forced to, but simply because God through the angel planted the seed of faith in his head and love in his heart. It sounds an awful lot like Jesus, the word made flesh assuming the sins of mankind, doesn't it. Why again because of love, and its marriage with faith.
The poem goes on from here and the narrator comes on and explains to the audience the theological situation in more detail, he is talking about what Joseph must do, as if it were a complete role reversal of man and woman and their understood roles since the fall. Again it reflects the idea that Joseph is assuming Mary's experience, living it right beside her. I will focus on just the concluding lines of the four stanzas the narrator speaks, cutting out some complicated modern juxtaposition of the story to focus on the summaries of the conflict.

 While she who loves you makes you shake with fright,
Your love for her must tuck you up and kiss good night.

Today the roles are altered; you must be
The Weaker Sex whose passion is passivity.

You must learn now that masculinity,
To Nature, is a non-essential luxury.

Forgetting nothing and believing all,
You must behave as if this were not strange at all.

Do you see the role reversal? He finishes the speech with the following.

Without a change in look or word,
You both must act exactly as before;
Joseph and Mary shall be man and wife
Just as if nothing had occurred.
There is one World of Nature and one Life;
Sin fractures the Vision, not the Fact; for
The Exceptional is always usual
And the Usual exceptional.
To choose what is difficult all one's days
As if it were easy, that is faith. Joseph, praise.

Joseph and Mary's relationship and Joseph's faith and trust with her, his blind belief, his ability to love her unconditionally, even though the world would think he was crazy, because it is difficult, not many people would do what he did, but Joseph raises the standard for men and women and their relationships, a very big part then of the overall redemption of the world. Love through example. Love, Love, Love, Love, Love. . . many people would say that Matthew includes the story of Joseph because the details about his part of the story echo the details foretold by the prophets because he so often says, "All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel" or This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son," but I think that Matthew includes it because not only does it echo the prophets it also foreshadows the love that Jesus will show throughout the rest of the Gospel, and the love Jesus is, God's love made flesh.
I share this poem by Auden with  you because art like this invites us into the situation of the text that much more. Allowing us to think a little more about a story we know so well, and therefore never wonder about. And though there aren't many Christmas Carols that raise up Joseph, there is much in his story about what it means to be in a relationship, the faith, the trust, the sacrifice it takes, and Joseph does it all, a true example of the Christian love that his adopted son will work so hard to embody. Joseph very much stands up to the Marks of a True Christian, like we studied for so long. As we step forward toward Christmas, tomorrow is already Christmas Eve, may we strive in our relationships to be more like Joseph, and give of ourselves, and give completely of our love. Could it be that Mary bore Christ, but that Joseph is the first Christian?

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Mt 1:18-25). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.