Sunday, February 26, 2012

From Palms to Ashes

From Palms to Ashes
A sermon delivered by Peter T. Atkinson
February 26, 2012
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Luke 19: 36-40 & 23: 20-23 
Psalm 1

This past Wednesday Lent officially began with Ash Wednesday. Some of us got together here at church for a small service that centered around an ancient tradition: the imposition of the ashes. It is traditional that the Palms from the prior year's Palm Sunday are burned, then the ashes are used to mark the foreheads of the penitent. As the ashes are placed the words, "From Dust you were formed, and to dust you will return," are repeated, reminding us of the frailty of human life. The season of Lent is a time for fasting, for prayer, for study, for self evaluations, and most importantly for repentance. There is great symbolism in the use of the Palms as ashes. It is appropriate because the palms represent the best of our praise for Jesus, the celebration of us at our best, on our best day, and the ashes represent the great depths that seem to always fall to. I chose the two gospel readings this morning to recall that great paradox, that great fall, the fact that in just one week's time the great palm waving celebration, the parade through the streets on the young colt, so quickly turns into the mocking, jeering, march towards the cross. The people who had been cheering Hosanna, Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord, become the same people who demand that Jesus be crucified.
It is very easy to disregard a shift like this. It is much easier to think of ourselves as the Hosanna shouters. We can relate to them, loving Jesus, being swept up in the excitement, the momentum, the miracles. Few of us allow ourselves to identify with the ones yelling crucify him. Throughout the history of Christianity, we Christians have claimed the Hosanna’s but have discarded the shouts “Crucify him” peddling them off on others, either the Jews, or Romans, or chief priests, scribes and Pharisees. The ugly truth though is that most likely it was the same people, the same crowd, the same mob exclaims both Hosanna and then Crucify him. And we are very capable of shouting both in our lives. And thus the ashes of those palms belong on our faces, and the remembrance of our propensity to go along with such evil needs to find its place in our hearts.
As a captivated student of history, I’ve always been interested in the big events. At Hampden-Sydney I took classes on many, from the fall of the Roman Empire, to the American Civil War, but the period that always peeked my interest the most was the French Revolution, a period of change and upheaval that saw the pendulum shift back and forth, the leaders of one day are the guillotine’s swift victims of the next. It is hard not to see the parallels between such a historical event and the Palm Sunday/Holy Week betrayal of the always fickle crowd.
We ask ourselves how it can happen. We tell ourselves that it never could again, but it does again and again. It is a phrase repeated I think much too frequently that “those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” Though it is true, that forgetting history makes one apt to relive the patterns, but simply knowing the events of history is not enough. It is much more important to understand history, not just to avoid repeating it, but simply to understand who we are as humans and just what wonders and horrors we are capable of.
How does it happen? What is the force behind the change? How can we shift our position so easily? Simply put, we have no idea who we are, no identity, no true concept of self, so when the winds of change blow us we have no root, no binding principle to hold us, and therefore when the crowd yells Hosanna we join in, and when the tide turns we turn right along with it.
Let’s take a step back though first, and look at the make up of the crowd. As an English Teacher I'm always looking for ways to teach important distinctions between words. One of the big word concepts that opens the door to understanding so many more word distinctions is the important differnece between the words: Denotation and Connotation. For a reminder to those who have been gracefully removed for a long time from the High School classroom, Denotation is the dictionary concise definition of the word, and a Connotation is the feelings or added meanings that a word picks up over time, based on usage and other things. I ask the class to look up three words, one was “group”, the second was “crowd,” the third one was “mob.” Each year they find that basically all three share the same dictionary definition, i.e. that “they are a collection of people,” but then I ask them to look at a selection of pictures and ask them which word fits each one. They have no problem differentiating the four people standing together doing nothing as the "group," the destructive and unruly "mob," and finally the cheering "crowd." This week though as I’ve been wrestling with the fickleness of the mob in the Passion text, I’ve been wondering, what is the inherent difference between a “mob” which we could say that the Hosanna cheering then Crucify jeering folks were and a “community,” which we as Christians are called to be? The distinction in their make up is subtle, but important because though rarely does a mob become a community, but a community constantly is threatened on all sides at every moment with the with danger of turning into a mob.
I would say that the main difference is that a community is made up of individual people who preserve their identity and function together, and therefore remain rooted. And a mob is a mass of people who give up their own identity and take on the identity of the mob. They then become the fickle crowd participating in group think, the dangers of which give us the swinging pendulum of popular opinion, the chopping guillotine, Nazi’s, fascists, a world blown seemingly out of control, and the shouts of Hosanna to Crucify, again and again throughout history.
 The difficult part of becoming a community is that it is truly hard to know who we are in this world and what defines us. So many things work together in our lives to form our identity. They seem to shape us, and give a semblance of meaning to our lives, but they can hide from us the real truth about ourselves.
There is a modern parable that has been used by many people in recent years. I’ve seen it used to show the difference between Christianity and other religions. It has also been used to show how Christ himself functions differently than other people. Today I want to use it to show how many different things can work to define who we are and how we act. This is the parable of the man who fell into the pit.
So a man falls into a pit and tries and tries to get out but just can’t. He cries out for help but no one hears him.
One of the things that work to define us are our emotions.
A happy person came by looked down saw the man in the pit and said my what a lovely day to be in a pit.
A sad person came by said, I don’t think being in a pit could be any worse than what I deal with everyday.
An angry person said, I wish that I could put my enemies in a pit like that.
And a jealous person wondered how come this guy’s pit was so much bigger than his own.
Another thing that can define us is our job. For instance:
A policeman might ask the man if they have a license for that pit.
An IRS agent might ask if he’s yet filed his taxes on his pit.
An insurance salesman might ask him if his pit is in the good hands of All State.
A news reporter might ask if he could interview the man for an exclusive story on his pit.
A sportscaster might say, Well sports fans it appears that the man has fallen into a pit.
Sometimes we are defined by our race
If you were more like me I’d save you from that pit
If you were more like me you wouldn’t have fallen into this pit to begin with
If you could speak my language, if your skin were my color, if you were just. . . not in that pit maybe we could get along.
Sometimes our actions are defined by our politics
A Liberal might say, let me give you some money while you are in that pit that should solve all your problems
A Conservative might say, how much is this guy’s pit going to cost me
Sometimes our actions are defined by our religious affiliation or philosophy
A Pharisee might tell him that only bad people fall into pits
A Fundamentalist might tell him that he deserved to fall into his pit
A Charismatic might come by and say if he would only confess he’d be out of the pit
A Christian Scientist might tell him, “you only think you are in that pit”
A Realist might say, “That surely is a pit”
A Calvinist might say, “If you were saved you never would have fallen into that pit”
A Wesleyan might say, “You were saved and still fell in that pit”
An optimist might say, “Things could be worse”
A Pessimist might say to him, “You know what, things will get worse”
The parable though always ends the same: Jesus pulled the man out of that pit. And it is possible that any of those other individuals might done the same on any given day. When the weather and circumstances was right, their best and true selves would reach down and help him out of the pit, but Jesus would always do it because Jesus knew who he was, and what he was, regardless of circumstances, regardless of temptations, regardless of what the herd said. Jesus was the Son of God when he healed all of the people he healed. He was the Son of God when he preached the Sermon on the Mount. He was the son of God when he was out in the desert for forty days of temptation. He was the son of God when he rode into Jerusalem on the Colt amidst praising shouts of Hosanna, and he was the Son of God when he stumbled broken to the cross amidst shouts of Crucify him.
Do you think it is possible that we could live our lives like that? Completely free from the whims and wishes of other people. Independent to an ever changing world. Independent in an ever changing world? Perhaps.
Psalm 1, which Pat read for us this morning, captures some of this important grounding nature in following God:
Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.
 2But his delight is in the LORD;
he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, and not scattered by the wind.

Paul also points to our need to be this way in his letter to the Galatians, writing, "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." This is the foundation for our new community. We must find  our identity in Christ Jesus, as a child of God because that identity is constant, complete, and eternal. That identity does not change with the times, with the fads of the day, or with the herd. That identity is like a tree planted.
We live in an interesting time, where people seek to define us, with labels, in groups. None of these labels fit a child of God because God made all of his children completely unique. There has been no other you, and there will never be another you. This is important to remember because your gifts are unique, and the role that your life will play is unique. Remembering that we are children of God gives us unity, but a unity that is not meant for the mindless mob, but rather for the more rooted Community. If we are shaped by our identity as a child of God, then we are free to become a true actualization of the potential of ourselves. We become empowered to be the person we were created to be.
And it is during Lent that we search for just who that person is. We look inside at the person we are, honestly. Where are the shadows within ourselves? Where do we not allow in the light? Where are we filled with the darkness? What are the parts of us that are not accepting of the identity of a Child of God? Where do we feel inadequate, unworthy, unlovable? Where in ourselves are we capable of shouting crucify him, instead of Hosanna? Where in ourselves is there the capacity for evil, or violence, or racism, or genocide? Where in ourselves do we feel fragmented? Where in ourselves do we seek the acceptance of the herd? Where in ourselves do we abdicate our identity and assume the identity of others?
Are we children of God or are we still the man in the pit? We may find that our Lenten preparation has made us aware that we are very much still in the pit. That may be so, and if it is so, Christ will pull us out. . . that's what Easter is, and if we find that we have already been taken out of our pit, let us be completely about the business of Christ, that is not sympathizing with those in the pit, not making their pits better, or livable, or pretending that they don't exist, but to be completely about the business of Christ, and bringing them out of the pit.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

To Be Truly Great

To Be Truly Great
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
February 19, 2012
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Luke 18:15-17
Luke 9: 46-48

This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday. We turn a corner on one season of the church and begin the season of Lent. My sermons since Christmas have traced some of the major events in the life of Jesus as he made his journey from the Manger in Bethlehem, through Baptism and Temptation, through rejection at his hometown of Nazareth, to his choosing of the twelve disciples, to his healings and actions that worked to tick off the Pharisees, to last week covering his teachings through the Sermon on the Plain. Next week and as we go through the Sundays of Lent we will focus on the events of the last week of Jesus's Earthly life. Beginning with the triumphant entry into Jerusalem, and concluding with the Resurrection on Easter. Today though, I got to pick what aspect of all the remaining events of Jesus' life and ministry I would study and would get my focus. I chose this story for two reasons. One it appealed to me because it seemed to fit in perfectly with the development of the messages I have been giving the last few weeks, and two because it speaks to a very important issue in the life of us as we discern our mission here in Gordonsville.
Last week we talked about how the kingdom of God turns things upside down, and that we are called to disregard our own personal interests in order to seek the Kingdom of God. It is interesting then that this week we focus on the disciples asking which one of them is the greatest. I mean how would you know where you stand with Jesus because all of your definitions of success have been swept aside. Everything that you had used in the past to measure your worth has been rendered obsolete. Every notion that had previously been the basis of your esteemed status has been made irrelevant. Look at what the disciples have just done. In this chapter in Luke, chapter 9 you see the disciples return from their mission, being called for the first time apostles instead of disciples,; they have fed five thousand people with only five loaves and two fish; one of their lot, Peter, has made his declaration about the identity of Jesus as Christ; they have seen Christ Transfigured, and they have been let in on the idea that Jesus must go to Jerusalem to die, where he tells them that if they want to truly follow him they need to pick up their cross. In the wake of all this, they must have been feeling pretty good about themselves. They certainly feel as though they have picked up their cross, they feel as though they have left everything behind, so they all feel like they have arrived and are above all others, and they seem to be jockeying for position to see who is best among themselves, as it says that an argument rose about them as to who is the greatest. Surely they all have some claim based on the things that they have done in the recent past, but true to form Jesus brings them back to reality in his description of what "True Greatness is." He grabs a child and says,  “Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me; for the least among all of you is the greatest.” Whoever welcomes the child. . .
Last Sunday was a neat day. We welcomed new members. The Choir sang a beautiful anthem. Joan providentially picked an offertory song for the choir that I had actually quoted in my sermon. We had visitors. We had great fellowship, sharing delicious cake and tasty punch. And most importantly we had children here. We had so many that during the children's time they spread across the front two pews. We had children, and what a joy it was. I know so many of you have talked to me in passing as to how nice it is to have children in church--their songs, their smiles, their questions, their innocence, their cuteness. Yes it is a joy. It is a joy. We had children here, but what did we do to welcome them in Jesus' name? They came. They filled our hearts with joy. They sat in the service for their allotted time, came up for their part of the service, and then when the time came they either went back to the back with one of their parents and grandparent to put together the furniture in the nursery, or stayed and let me bore them to tears with my sermon. I think it's easy to say that if welcoming children in Jesus' name is the measure of greatness, we have a long way to go.
We do have a long way to go, but I would not mention it if I didn't think we had the potential for this exact kind of greatness. I want to challenge us this morning, that by the end of August, for the new school year, that we have both a viable nursery with consistent and dedicated volunteers and a Children's Sunday School program in place.
The two Gospel readings for this morning talk about the importance of children to the Christian life, showing how our greatness is tied to it, but I want to go farther in looking at why this goal is so important, not just for any ideas of our own greatness or for growth of the Church, but because we need to serve these kids, the ones that we have already in this community. Let's start with the Sunday School. So much of my childhood memories of Church did not take place in the sanctuary, but rather in the Sunday School rooms. It was there that I learned the stories that I dearly love. These stories are so formative for our lives, knowing our place in the world, and coming to know God's power, God's presence, and God's love.
It is in Sunday School that you learn the Noah story, that a rainbow in the sky is a promise from God that the rains will always stop short of flooding the world. It is in Sunday School that you learn the Moses story, that God can protect a baby floating in a basket even down a river, and that a child in a basket can grow up to lead a nation out of slavery, that sometimes slavery is easier than freedom, but that with God's help the difficult becomes worthwhile. That even in the desert water can be found, that even in the desert food can be found, that there are ten commandments that guide a life of freedom. In Sunday School you learn about a young boy named David who defeated the mighty Giant Goliath, showing again that even the small and weak can do great things in the service of God. You learn of a young widow who goes against all wisdom to the contrary, assuring here that she will not ever have a husband, and is blessed with that very thing, that a Hebrew Princess can save her people through her faithfulness even up against a powerful king. You learn that even though hope is gone, that parents are too old, that the blessing of children can still be born. You learn that through God, man can be protected not just in a desert, not just against a giant but within a den of lions, within a fire, in the shadow of death, from Pharoah, from Philistines, from anyone who would want to do us harm in any place because we've learned that God's presence and power know no bounds.
You learn in Sunday School to sing songs with lasting memorable messages about life. Like to always let your light shine, let it shine, let it shine, let it shine. . . or that the wise man built his house upon the rock and it stayed firm but the foolish man's went splat, after the rains came down and the floods came up. . . And that if you stand at the door and knock, knock, knock, he will open the door, and will come in. . . Or that there was this wee little man named Zachaeaus, who could not be kept from Jesus, or how great peace is like a river. . . or how great it is to rise and shine and give God the glory glory. . . that you can praise him praise him praise him in the morning and praise at the noontime and to praise him when the sun goes down. . . That between the highways and the hedges you can be somewhere a working for your lord. . . That Jesus wants you for a sunbeam, and a disciple, and a child of God. . .and that the knowledge of that can give you Joy, joy, joy, joy down in your heart. . . and that your cup will overflow. . . and that the Lord has been good to us by giving me the things I need the sun and the rain and the apple seed. . . and especially that Jesus loves all the little children, red and yellow, black and white, they are all precious in his sight. . . every child in every land that he holds them in his hand, because he's got the whole world in his hands. . .and you learn that Jesus Loves Me, for all of these Bible stories tell us so. . . They tell us that he loves us like a shepherd, like a father, like a mother, as a friend and companion who desires to walk with us in the cool of the day, like an artist and poet loves their work, that in addition to loving us he knows us, that his thoughts of us are more numerous than the grains of sands on the beach, that he has numbered every hair upon our head, that he will provide for us as he does the lilies of the fields, and the birds of the air, that he loves us so much that he sent his son so that we shall not perish but have eternal life in communion with him in heaven.
Those stories change us. . . and we must give them to these kids because these stories, and songs, and prayers show them who they are, what they are, and why their very existence is important, crucial to this world, and a valid and necessary part of God's plan, yes even them, each of them, uniquely them, no other who has ever been or who ever will be is them. They are unique and beautiful children of God. Let's face it, our world seeks to minimize and characterize people, and kids especially, teaching them to conform, attaching their identity to material things, like fashion styles, tatoos, and piercings, or grouping them into classes, or racial, ethnic, citizenship or gender distinctions, rather than the solid all encompassing identity that is eternal and true, that we are each beloved children of God. I can think of nothing more important, and I see glaringly every day the tragic absence of the knowledge of that identity in the lives of the teenagers I teach. They are all seeking, but have not been freed by the knowledge of their identity as a unique manifestation of God's glorious creation. It is heartbreaking. . .
But there is more to Sunday School even than all of that. It is also in Sunday School that children learn that people care for and about them. The relationships formed between adults and children at church, beyond their parents reinforce the idea that these kids are truly loved. The value of that is not just given to the kid either. You can have no greater reward in life than connecting with a child, helping and watching them grow, seeing the steps of their lives, being with them in those moments, and then one day interacting as peers and partners. Look at Kane with the bell choir. Look at the wonderful work that Ben does in this church. Like I said the potential is here. Let's rekindle it.
As of this minute, we have at least four kids who are here regularly. There may be more, but four is enough to warrant our service to them. Actually one would be enough. When a child is baptized in the Presbyterian Church vows are made by the parents and by the congregation, to raise the child up as a child of God, not by God parents, but by the congregation. All of us. We must serve these kids because we promised to do it, and it is the right thing to do. Our kids need it and our world needs it.
It will be difficult though. On Friday Nights because I have duty at the school I usually eat dinner there with the family of one of my good friends I work with. He usually asks me what I'm planning to preach on for Sunday. When I told him this time, he said, quite astutely, "Wow that's a important message, most people will agree, but what will be difficult is getting them to also act and follow through." He may be right, I don't think so because I have faith in us, but he may be right because this will be difficult. New beginnings always are, which is why I'm talking about it now, so many months before our goal line. We will need all of us, and all of us, each of us needs time to discern what we have to offer. Many pitfalls will challenge us, and we will need many people involved. Of course we will need to find committed teachers to give their love, time, and talents. It is a hard job, and a lot of work and sacrifice will be required. Those teachers will need support, moral support, substitutes, curriculum assistance, hugs, relief after a period of time. They need to know that others are just as committed as they are. They will need to have confidence in themselves, knowing that no teacher is perfect, and that mistakes will be made, knowing that they are empowered by Christ, and by us. They will need training, education, and support. There will be Sundays when plans are made, a lot of time is put in and no kids show up. There will be times when it seems as if the kids do not care, and that the parents aren't appreciative. There will be times when it seems like it is all a complete waste of time because we seem to be getting nowhere. All of these things will happen, and they must all be overcome, and they will be overcome if we are all in together. Yes we need all of us. Every member of this church has something that they can share with these kids. We are not all called to the same role, but we are all called to some role. We must do so in faith, and God will provide. . . provide us with the strength and endurance so that we can persevere, and it will make a difference even if only with these four children. The first steps will be difficult as anything new always is. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Take the first step in faith. You don't have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.”
We can't see the future. We can't see the whole staircase, and we won't know the whole staircase, either. All churches wish to grow, and if we put these effective programs we may just grow. . . We may grow in numbers that none of us can believe, but then again we may not. Growth should not be our goal, fulfilling our obligations in love must instead be our goal. Each child that comes through these doors we must love and welcome into the love of Jesus Christ. Each child. One thing is certain: if we do not do these things we absolutely will not grow. We won't grow because we will not be fulfilling our basic charge. It's as simple as that. Jesus say's if you want to be truly great you must, "welcome this child in my name." We do a lot of great things here. We really do, but so did the disciples at this point, and it was not enough. I said a few weeks ago that one of the difficulties with the standard being love is that there is never enough, and we are never done. Those words do not exist.
On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy said that by the end of that decade, America would put a man on the moon, and despite all the odds, it was done. I don't claim to be like JFK, and this church does not have all the resources of the United States of America, but in the same spirit I offer this challenge. By August we will have a Viable Nursery with consistent dedicated and responsive staffing and we will offer Sunday School Classes for our Children. Luckily for us we don't need to send a man to the moon, we simply need to love our children, so despite the difficulties, through and with God's help I know we can get this done. May it be so. . . Let us pray. . .
Father God, sometimes the simple things can be very difficult in the beginning stages. Help us to take this first step to living up to the challenges that you have placed before us as we try to live out our lives here as disciples and followers of Christ. Bless us over the next few months as we put together ways to serve our children in this place because we know that by welcoming them we are welcoming you. Bless the people who will be asked to sacrifice their time, and bless the people who will be asked to dedicate their talents to serving your will in this place. Guide us along this road, just as you have always done. We know that the with you amongst us, no challenge is too great. We ask these blessings humbly in the name of Jesus Christ Your Son our Lord. Amen.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

To Do the Opposite

To Do the Opposite
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
February 12, 2012
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Luke 6: 20-36
Ruth 1:6-18

This week in class, having arrived in my survey of World Literature back to the west and in this case in the Middle Ages, we looked at The Rule of St. Benedict. For those of you who do not know, this is a document--one  of the few from the earliest years following the Fall of the Roman Empire that we have--that gives the rules for life as a Monk in a Benedictine Monastery. Many of these rules are still followed in Benedictine Monasteries today. In Chapter 4 of that book, there is a list of 72 items, entitled "The Instruments of Good Works." It is this list that I went over with my students. I wanted them to look at seeing the ideals that Monks tried to live up to, though we will certainly in our further reading, find many occasions where the reality will fall way short. We looked at that list of 72 things and I asked them which ones they thought would be beneficial to live by and which ones they didn't. Only one student all day asked me what I meant by beneficial, which I thought was cool, because it showed he was thinking. I said, "They are beneficial, in the sense that if people lived that way the world would be a better place, that is the distinction." He said ok. There was everything on that list from adultery, to fasting. . . We had great discussions about some of them, but it was amazing what they chose to eliminate, and what they chose to keep. Especially because I had scratched one thing that most of them kept, and they scratched one that I didn't think they would. I scrapped: #60. To obey in all things the commands of the Abbot or Abbess even though they (which God forbid) should act otherwise, mindful of the Lord's precept, "Do what they say, but not what they do.", which most of them kept. I was amazed because I thought most of them would scrap that one quickly,  you know being the free thinking know it all teenagers they are, but no they didn't have trouble with that one. The one they scrapped that I thought was interesting was #20, "To become a stranger to the world's ways."  I was amazed. I said, "So you all have no problem following a leader who is saying and doing different things, but you have trouble seeing that the ways of the world are harmful." It made me think a lot this week about how the world ways are different from the ways of God, and how that message is being lost. Especially in an election year, where you can't watch TV without some politician claiming to stand for the ways of God, very much in the world. But then again that proves that my students are more typical than I thought, especially since we seem to put more faith in politicians and government finding solutions to the world's problems than we do God.
There is no portion of the life of Jesus that shows us how very different God's ways are to our own than Jesus' two most famous Sermons. The sermon on the Mount, which is found in Matthew's Gospel, and our passage for this morning that comes from Luke's so called, "Sermon on the Plain." Basically there are two parts of this morning's lesson. The first is the parallel of the Beatitudes, where Jesus shows how the Kingdom of God is different from the way our world appears, almost the complete opposite. And then the second part, which seems to me is the way that Jesus is suggesting people should act in order to make that upside down flip happen.
So let's look at the world Jesus is describing first.
It's the poor who are blessed not the rich. . .

It's the hungry who are filled. . .

It's the criers who will laugh. . .

So when people hate, exclude, defile and defame you, and you should rejoice and leap for joy.

If you are rich woe to you because you've reached the top.

If you are full now you will be hungry.

If you are laughing now you will mourn and weep.

And when people speak well of you, woe, woe, woe to you. . .

If that is not turning our world upside down, I don't know what is. This describes a complete and total reversal of fortune, one that doesn't just say that the poor will be made rich, but one who suggests that the rich will also be made poor. If that is the case everything that we do to further our own success would definitely be wrong because any move up would instead be a move down. So is that then the key? We should do the opposite of what we think we should do. . .
One of my favorite TV shows is Seinfeld. It has covered so many great ideas. For being a show that is supposedly about nothing, it somehow keeps finding ways to make it into my sermons. This time again it's my favorite character, George. He decides one day that his life is absolutely horrible. He's broke, He's Unemployed, He's hopelessly single, and he lives with his unbearable to say the least parents. He feels that he has hit rock bottom. He says at one point, "Every instinct that I've ever had in my life is wrong." So the clever smart aleck character Jerry suggests to him that he should do the opposite, saying, "If every instinct you have is wrong then the opposite would have to be right." It starts with him instead of eating tuna on toast, he eats chicken salad on rye, then when a beautiful woman appears to be giving him the eye, Jerry and Elaine tell him to go talk to her. George says, "Bald men, who have no job, and live with their parents do not approach strange women," but he does the opposite. He goes up to her and repeats his line, "Hello my name is George, I'm unemployed, and I live with my parents." Instead of laughing at him, or turning him down, she tilts her head to the side, smiles deeply, and says, "I'm Victoria, hi!" His opposite day lands him a job with the Yankees, a good relationship, his entire world turns around. His road to success is paved. He says at one point, "This is no longer an experiment. This is my religion." It is interesting though to think, at what point does the opposite stop being the opposite and become the new way you think. . . It is here I think where the problems with strictly following this type of opposite rule comes into play, that these opposites are not really the opposite.
So let's look at what Jesus prescribes as the How, to the Kingdom of God flip flop, the second part of our lesson for this morning. Look at this to do list. . .
Love your enemies,
Do good to those who hate you,
Bless those who curse you,
Pray for those who abuse you.
If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also;
From anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.
 Give to everyone who begs from you;
If anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.

Can you even consider this the opposite of what our instincts are? In some ways maybe, but I think it goes even beyond merely opposite, at least in the self serving way that George figures it. The radical nature of loving your enemies, blessing those that curse you, and the rest well surpasses, changing from toast to rye, tuna to chicken, and approaching a strange woman, who you are sure will reject you. If I could sum up what all of these things are saying, it is completely forget about you self interest.
            Let's take a look at the biggest one: Loving your enemies. . . It is interesting to think for a minute about this one. Mostly I think people take that this to mean that you really aren't supposed to have enemies because loving them would make them no longer enemies. This may be true, but this idea enemies intrigues me. I want us to all think about what makes someone an enemy. It's funny that when Jesus said love your neighbor someone pipes up and asks, who is my neighbor giving Jesus a platform to tell us a parable to teach us about neighbors, in that case, "The Good Samaritan." No such luck here, but is that because everyone knows what an enemy is? Maybe, at least in theory. . . I mean I thought so, but when I tried to come up with one specific enemy I had trouble. I couldn't think of a single person that I would consider an enemy. I mean that's a pretty harsh distinction, but I could think of a lot of people I have trouble loving. The only people that would make the enemy distinction though I really don't even know. It seems that enemies have to do with group distinctions rather than individual ones. I mean enemies may mean like someone from an enemy nation, or an opposite political view point. In these election years it is easier to group people into those categories of friends and enemies, but unless you are running for office yourself against another person those enemies aren't really individual people, but rather people who have conflicting ideas or visions for the future, your future.
            So what makes people enemies? In both of these cases enemies seem to be the people who could completely alter your life in ways you do not want to have happen. In the case of enemy nations, there is the fear that they could violently change or end our lives, in the case of political enemies it seems we build the same kind of things up in our minds, as if the other party is going to change our world in ways we cannot accept. In both cases, it is very possible that they will. How are you supposed to love someone that stands to put in jeopardy your very way of life, your values, your safety, your rights, your freedoms. There are really significant challenges that we face. How can we love those things, those things that challenge our very being. It's alot easier to downgrade "enemies" to those people in your life who are unlovable, who rub you the wrong way, and try to love them, but instead it says enemies.
            Now I didn't necessarily bring this up to answer this question, but to illustrate how difficult this command from Jesus can be. It would be way too easy for me to say these things shouldn't matter to us because we are Christian. . . but they do. I don't want to cheapen this by offering an easy prescription, pretending that enemies don't exist, that by loving them we can make them cease to be enemies. I don't think that is what it's about.
Let me offer an idea though because I posed earlier the thought that Jesus' list of opposites has to do with not focusing on our self interest. We should always keep in mind that Jesus' mission took him to the cross. That on the way to the cross when people were abusing him physically and mentally in ways that would make the word abuse not even come close to describing, Jesus said, "Father forgive them they know not what they do." Jesus not only preaches it here on the Plain, but practices it all the way to Calvary. Perhaps that is what it takes for the kingdom of God to be a reality here on Earth. I mean Jesus' loving of his enemies, did not magically make them not want to hurt him, or cease to be enemies to his well being. It simply meant that what they could do to him was made somehow made irrelevant by God.
St. Francis puts this together in his prayer, that I placed in the bulletin as the Prayer of Preparation. That the way to become an instrument of God's peace is to seek the opposite of our desires because he says that it "is in giving that we receive, in pardoning that we are pardoned, and in dying that we are born to eternal life." George's opposites are just reworkings of his original desires. One could argue that the opposite of a Republican is a Democrat, or vice versa, maybe that the opposite of an Iranian is an Israeli, that we could do the opposite by seeking our own interest in the opposite way. There is a problem with that way of opposite thinking because you just shift your desires in an opposite way in hopes to control and gain your own reward in another way. It seems like it needs to be more holistic opposite. That instead of seeking our own reward, we simply shouldn't.
It is much easier for us to not acknowledge that God's ways are very much a challenge to us. My students I think grasped that by not grasping it. It was easier for them to strike it from their list because they did not want to deal with the difficulty of the possibility that 1. God exists, or 2. that God could see the world very differently from what they do, 3. what that would mean. It takes amazing faith to not seek your own reward, believing that the only reward that is valuable would come from God, and would come without having to seek it.
It is interesting how Jesus frames the second half of his message, suggesting that people already have their reward for seeking their own interest. The idea is that you might just actually get what you seek, if so great, but look around at our world. How great is this reward that we have gained for ourselves. It seems to be a reward that we constantly have to defend and protect from enemies who may just try to take away all the reward we have amassed. Another thing hard to ignore today, is the tragedy of the life of Whitney Houston, whose talent the world lost yesterday. A woman that many would say had it all, but even "it all" was not enough for her. Our world is not a place of peace, nor does it look anything like what Jesus describes as the kingdom of God. Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and its righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you, allelulia. Perhaps it is time that we truly try the opposite, the real opposite as truly difficult as that may be, not seeking our own interest but instead seeking the kingdom of God, which we must have the faith to believe that God has the power to completely flip this world upside down.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Rules Would Be Easier

Rules Would Be Easier
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
February 5, 2012
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Luke 5:17 - 6:11

As you may have noticed this morning's New Testament lesson is longer than usual. It covers two chapters, and includes 34 verses. It is really five separate stories, five distinct events, but I chose to look at them as a whole because they each show Jesus dealing with his most consistent critics, the Pharisees. It is no accident that Luke presents them here in order together, because by doing so he is suggesting that he sees them as connected as well.. Working with them as a unit, therefore should give us more insight into the theme he is trying to relate. I will read each one separately, provide some minimal commentary, and then at the end work with them as a whole. The five episodes are Jesus Healing a Paralytic, Jesus Calling Levi to be a disciple, Jesus answering a question about fasting, Jesus answering a question about the Sabbath, and finally Jesus healing the man with a withered hand.
Jesus Heals a Paralytic
(Mt 9:2–8; Mk 2:1–12)
17 One day, while he was teaching, Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting near by (they had come from every village of Galilee and Judea and from Jerusalem); and the power of the Lord was with him to heal.  18 Just then some men came, carrying a paralyzed man on a bed. They were trying to bring him in and lay him before Jesus;  19 but finding no way to bring him in because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and let him down with his bed through the tiles into the middle of the crowd  in front of Jesus. 20 When he saw their faith, he said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven you.” 21 Then the scribes and the Pharisees began to question, “Who is this who is speaking blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” 22 When Jesus perceived their questionings, he answered them, “Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? 23 Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and walk’? 24 But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the one who was paralyzed—“I say to you, stand up and take your bed and go to your home.” 25 Immediately he stood up before them, took what he had been lying on, and went to his home, glorifying God. 26 Amazement seized all of them, and they glorified God and were filled with awe, saying, “We have seen strange things today.”

As we go through these let's take special note of what Jesus does to make the Pharisee's angry, what they say to him about it, and what his response is.
In this story Jesus shocks the Pharisees by forgiving sins. Yet they do not speak to Jesus directly, rather they seem to grumble to themselves about Jesus and his blasphemy. Jesus seems to overhear and read their displeasure, so he brilliantly paints them into a corner. You see the Pharisees are sure of two things. 1. Disease is certainly the result of sin, and 2. Only God can forgive sins. By healing him by saying, sir Your sins are forgiven, he assures the Pharisees that they will be wrong on at least one of the two counts. Either Jesus can forgive sins, or sin and disease are not connected. . . You can see why they would be angry.
Then the next, the calling of Levi. . .
Jesus Calls Levi
(Mt 9:9–13; Mk 2:13–17)
27 After this he went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, “Follow me.” 28 And he got up, left everything, and followed him.
29 Then Levi gave a great banquet for him in his house; and there was a large crowd of tax collectors and others sitting at the table with them. 30 The Pharisees and their scribes were complaining to his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” 31 Jesus answered, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; 32 I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.”

A tax collector, a sinner, a traitor to the Jewish people, and Jesus chooses him to be a follower, again the Pharisee's are appalled. This time again they do not question Jesus directly, but instead complain to the disciples. Again, though Jesus gives the answer. The Pharisees believe that Good people are the ones who deserve our care and concern, not someone who lives off the sufferings of others? That is not righteous! Jesus answers, you're right why would the righteous need to repent? Shown up again, and challenged on their deeply held beliefs, the Pharisees' anger grows.
Then the question of fasting. . .
The Question about Fasting
(Mt 9:14–17; Mk 2:18–22)
33 Then they said to him, “John’s disciples, like the disciples of the Pharisees, frequently fast and pray, but your disciples eat and drink.‘ 34 Jesus said to them, “You cannot make wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them, can you? 35 The days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days.” 36 He also told them a parable: “No one tears a piece from a new garment and sews it on an old garment; otherwise the new will be torn, and the piece from the new will not match the old. 37 And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the new wine will burst the skins and will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. 38 But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins. 39 And no one after drinking old wine desires new wine, but says, ‘The old is good.’ ” 

Finally they directly confront Jesus, this time on the behavior of his disciples. You are not like us, Jesus, and you are not like John, we taught our disciples to be respectful of the laws, sacrificing in honor of God, why don't you? Jesus answers two ways, one proclaiming again the importance of himself, paralleling his earlier, forgiving of sins, and then presents to them two images of change. No one likes to be called old fashioned and out of date, so their anger grows again.
The Question about the Sabbath
(Mt 12:1–8; Mk 2:23–28)
6 One sabbath while Jesus was going through the grainfields, his disciples plucked some heads of grain, rubbed them in their hands, and ate them. 2 But some of the Pharisees said, “Why are you doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” 3 Jesus answered, “Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? 4 He entered the house of God and took and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and gave some to his companions?” 5 Then he said to them, “The Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.”

This time Jesus is breaking a very old law, keeping the Sabbath holy is one of the Ten Commandments after all, and an important holy day since the seventh day at the very beginning of creation. Now, imagine this, he this time tells them something about history and tradition, which is their area of expertise. It would be like going up to Tom Brady this afternoon and giving him tips on how to throw a football, and as if that were not enough he proclaims himself Lord of the Sabbath. So their anger builds.
The Man with a Withered Hand
(Mt 12:9–14; Mk 3:1–6)
6 On another sabbath he entered the synagogue and taught, and there was a man there whose right hand was withered. 7 The scribes and the Pharisees watched him to see whether he would cure on the sabbath, so that they might find an accusation against him. 8 Even though he knew what they were thinking, he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come and stand here.” He got up and stood there. 9 Then Jesus said to them, “I ask you, is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?” 10 After looking around at all of them, he said to him, “Stretch out your hand.” He did so, and his hand was restored. 11 But they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus.

Now as if plucking grain weren't bad enough, this time he does a healing on the Sabbath, and in the process questions their intentions about what they really care about, insinuating that they care more about the Law than people, and this is the last straw. . .  They were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus.
It's amazing to see, here, already, in chapter 6 the writing is on the wall that Jesus is going to have trouble with the powers that be. As a baby he posed a threat to Herod and the political powers of the time, and now here he is alienating the Religious leaders. It doesn't take long in any of the gospels, the road to the cross begins early in the story of Jesus. So many times in my life I have heard it told that the Pharisees are the villains of this story. I talked last week at how the disciples are so human, and therefore easy to relate to because of their weakness, yet their willingness to somehow go on, but no one ever thinks of relating themselves to the Pharisees. I mean the idea of the Pharisees has even become its own word, a nasty epithet, in the English Language, Pharisaism has come to mean "rigid observance of external forms of religion or conduct without genuine piety; hypocrisy." Oh we like to demonize them, but how different are they from us. . . really?
Imagine what would happen if someone came in here and did what Jesus did. Would we react any differently than these Pharisees. Jesus comes in claiming to be God, painting them in a corner, challenging their long time held laws, rituals, and observances, claims to know more about the history of their religion than they do, chooses the company of defilers, traitors, and thieves, and accuses them of being heartless, shallow, and cruel, when all they are doing is following their tradition in the best way that they know how. Much is at stake for them. They are an occupied nation, and they have been for years. Their identity as a people is tied up in their traditions. Their personal livelihood is tied up in their traditions. Their hope as a nation is tied to their traditions, and their connection to God is tied to their traditions. How would you feel to have all of that challenged? So instead of throwing them under the bus, perhaps we can find ways to see the difference between what they believed, and what Jesus was trying to show them, for our own benefit today, not because the Pharisees are so different from us, but because we are in many ways like them.
I  took out  Jesus' responses to them and put them in the bulletin as the Prayer of Preparation. Take a look at what we have going on here.
  • Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and walk’?
  • Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick;
  • You cannot make wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them, can you?
  • No one tears a piece from a new garment and sews it on an old garment
  • The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.

These first five all get the Pharisees going, but do not really put them over the edge. It's interesting though because these are the really radical ones. In these Jesus is saying that he is in fact God incarnate. I can forgive sins, I am here to provide a chance for righteousness, even to the most despicable people among us. I am the center of this party, there is new stuff going on here, which changes the old, and O, did I mention I'm the Lord of the Sabbath, too. If Jesus is not God, these are the most blasphemous statements you have ever heard. I mean this is a culture where speaking the name of God will get you stoned, and he is claiming to be God. . . But it is not this that pushes them to their breaking point. Instead it's this last one that sends them over the edge, and maybe it's just, "the straw that broke the camel's back" but I think there is more to it, and it certainly points toward what is most important to them. Jesus says. . .
  • I ask you, is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?

This is the point where they find the law as they know it and morality, not aligned, not on the same team, but set instead at odds. This is where the Pharisees get their bad name, as being hypocrites. This is the exact situation that my friend's facebook post pointed to from my sermon two weeks ago. Remember it said, "Morality is doing right regardless of what you are told, Religion is doing what you are told regardless of what is right." Here we are, the law says leave off from healing the hand till tomorrow, morality says heal away. Jesus heals away. . .
How can we classify the difference? Does this mean that the old laws are insufficient? How do we as religious people determine how to act if not by the law? Is being religious bad? I don't think so, necessarily, I think the problem is that living by law is too easy. Too easy you say, doesn't that run contrary to so much of what Paul, Luther, and Calvin spent their lives preaching. Not so fast. I agree with them that we are all filled, and surely filled with Sin, and therefore in dire need of Christ, I'm not saying that. What I'm saying is that living by the concept of Law is easy because Law is made up by "all you shouldn't do's", and it is really easy not to do something. I mean look at this situation it's a whole lot easier not to heal this guy's hand than to heal it. Laws are easy because you can actually finish. You can look at the checklist at the end of the day and feel satisfied with your success or failure.
Ben Franklin famously tried to perfect his moral character in this way. In his Autobiography he shows how he came up with a list of what he called virtues, but they were really just reverse laws. He would focus hard on one for a time, and mark on a column where he had transgressed each of his moral laws, hoping that he could improve on each one at a time. He found that his biggest downfall was pride because when he successfully improved in an area he felt pretty good about himself. This is what he wrote:
"In reality there is perhaps no one of our natural Passions so hard to subdue as Pride. Disguise it, struggle with it, beat it down, stifle it, mortify it as  much as one pleases, it is still alive, and will every now and then peep out and show itself. You will see it perhaps in this History. For even if I could conceive that I had completely overcome it, I should probably be proud of my Humility.”"

This seems to be what the Pharisees in this story have against them. They have been so successful at preaching, teaching, and following these laws, that they feel pretty great about what they have done, and they've done great things. The Pharisees of Jesus' time were reformers, and were responsible for much improvement in the Jewish landscape, but here faced with their status being questioned, they cannot look beyond what they know they know. Laws, and successfully following the law becomes about them, not about God, which could be why what they saw as Jesus' blasphemy did not anger them quite as much, as his challenge to their personal "goodness and righteousness," as he does by suggesting that following the law would be doing harm and choosing death.  
Let's look instead at what Jesus seems to be teaching. Forgiveness, even to the point of associating closely with those whom you forgive, rejoicing in fellowship with a real and present God, a present God who brings newness that stands out from the old, new understandings of law, new understandings of rest, doing good rather than just not doing evil. It all points to some new understanding of commandment. . . again as it does so often in the New Testament, in the life of Jesus, it comes back to Love. Love God, and Love your Neighbor.
Not breaking laws is easy compared to living by love. Living by Love is hard, nigh impossible apart from the grace of God because love is really never done. When in love does the word enough exist? It doesn't. . . Enough is not in love's vocabulary. Neither is done, finished, even death. Love does not ever end. Law lets you look at yourself each day, checking  your status, checking off your checklist. Love requires you to look outside of yourself, to the other. Love is harder because though there is only one you, there are tons of others whom you can give love. Maybe you could say that following the 200+ laws of the Old Testament would be difficult. It would be difficult to keep track of them all for sure. It would certainly be a long checklist to fill out every night, or on each Sabbath, or at each Year of Jubilee, or even to be held to account to at the final Judgment day, but all of that time would be time spent accounting for yourself, caring for yourself, making sure that you are squared away, but Jesus forgives us, grants us grace, and instead commands us simply to love. . . Would we prefer the rules?  Do we make new rules to prefer?
I said earlier that the Pharisees were upset to have their traditions challenged because their tradition was the source of their identity, their calling, their connection to God, and their hope. They couldn't see that a new identity was being established, an new calling was being spoken, a new and greater connection to God was being formed and a new hope was being offered. Do we see that new possibility? The identity, calling, and hope, by following, knowing, and experience a God who is love, loves us, and commands us to love.
I'll leave  you with this thought. A friend of mine was looking at the possibility of moving her family to Saudi Arabia because her husband had a great business opportunity. They would be gone for a couple years, and would make the kind of money that would set them up for the rest of their lives. Now there were many reasons not to do it, and to be honest I didn't think it was a good idea overall, but part of their thinking against it I didn't see. They knew for a fact that they would not be able, in their words "to be Christian there." Bibles, crosses, praying, anything that had to do with Jesus they could not have while there.. They didn't think that they could be a Christian without those things. What is interesting to think about, is that they would pretty much be in the same situation as the 1st Century Pharisees, in a land that does not support their faith, and in fact is challenging them at every turn. Another way of saying it is that their identity as Christians, their hope for the future, and their connection to God were based on those things. I remember saying to them that you can be a Christian anywhere because you can love anywhere. It is interesting to think, that if our identity is based on our traditions, perhaps my other friend's facebook post is more accurate than I'd care to believe, you know the one about Morality versus Religion. Perhaps we are more Pharisaical than we'd like to think. Let's think hard: What gives us our identity, hope, calling, and connection to God? Is it our traditions or is it our love? The famous song says: "They will know we are Christians by our Love, by our Love, they will know we are Christians by our love. . ." Please God. . . may we live up to that distinction.

Makes Me Me

Makes Me Me

My life is counted in more than coffee spoons,
But in memory of times, places, and people,
Each though they themselves may change
Are forever sealed upon my heart as they were,
And since they are as they were, I go on,
And their changes become new times, new places,
New people, new faces, and life goes on,
And so, too, must I, and do I, and can I,
For each of my senses experience in itself
At the same time the it and its connected
Tissue of memory. For the mountain I see
With my eyes, reminds me of others I still see
In my mind, and that fills me. In the holly
I see, I am reminded of the Red and Green
Of a Christmas celebration, and though
It’s Groundhog Day, and there are to be six
More weeks of winter, my heart is warmed.
At the same time though, too, I see in the holly
The red of the blood that pricked my finger,
Or that stuck me as I walked through its briars,
So at the same time one sight, holds more
Than one memory, but two and completely
Different therein, and more by far than come
To mind at present, will come tomorrow
When I shall behold the holly again. Nothing
Is as simple as I’d like it to be, thank God,
The wondrous world is filled with more.
And to people, their faces ingrained.
In these students, I can’t help but see others
Who have sat where they are sitting,
And they too, were searching for more,
Thirsting for more, but not knowing where
To look. They wonder, “What is truth?
Do my parents hold the answers, my teachers?
My friends seem to offer an easier truth,
And so we gather together without challenge,
And we all fall in line.” I don’t hear their voices,
But their actions are just like the others,
And like me, how can I help, show them,
But they have to find it on their own,
So not show, invite, show them the doors,
Ask them to knock, they may or not,
The ones that do and have, stand out
In my memory, the rest are faceless,
Manifestations of sameness, forgotten.
So what makes memory? Sameness,
Monotony, coffee spoons, habit, death,
Or is life about something else? It’s funny
What I remember, and what I don’t.
Did I know at the time, “Hey! Pay attention!
You’ll remember this!” I don’t think I did,
I just do, but there seems to be a pattern
And that pattern breaks the pattern,
Times that are remembered are unique
Just like people who are remembered
Distinguish themselves. What about the holly
Then or the mountain? They are just there.
There is something majestic though in their
Mere presence. So maybe there is something
Memorable in all those forgotten faces,
And things and places that I have missed,
But maybe they were there for someone else,
For the world is bigger than me, it’s cool
To think that nothing is useless, even though
In them I hold no need, for, too, maybe I
Have a value to give that I know not
Nor do I control; the thought of that sustains me,
Always, and makes me, me, and so me matters.
                                            ~ Peter T. Atkinson