A sermon delivered by Peter T. Atkinson
November 13, 2011
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Some of you may know this, but part of my process in getting to this point here today, ready to be ordained this afternoon was to write a "Statement of Faith." It was supposed to be one page, prose, and simple, but I decided instead to write a poem, and then I added some 160+ footnotes explaining each word, phrase, and stanza. One of the metaphors that I used to describe God in that Statement was God is a poet. The footnote on that item then referred to the fact that the Greek word for created, in "In the beginning God created." is epoisin, which is the root stem for the English word for poetry, poet, and poem. So I use this linguistic connection to understand the way God creates, like a poet, with intense care, artistry, and subtlety. This metaphor like all metaphors does not seek to completely encapsulate the identity of God, you can't do that because of God's infiniteness, but it may provide for us another glimpse of understanding.
I want to expand on this idea today, and talk about God's creating and ongoing providence, as witnessed in my life , as a specific type of poet, the writer of the Epic. This ancient and well known genre includes some of the most influential writers and stories of all time, transcending culture. It seems that every ancient civilization has their epic, the most famous epic writer being the Blind Bard of Greece Homer. The Epic form is used to tell stories with events of incredible scope, depicting characters who are heroes larger than life magnitude, and presenting themes of tangible and timeless importance.
Since the epic has a set form, there are distinctive features of an epic. I would like to use these features to begin my description of what I have entitled this sermon: God's epic.
The first feature found in all epics is an invocation. In an invocation the parameters and scope of the epic are revealed to the reader, in prayer form, where the divine inspiration is asked for. God's epic of my life may begin with this invocation.
Sing, o sing heavenly father, sing of a man,
Blessed with life, and talents and gifts,
Surrounded by love, teachers and friends,
But mired in idle and doubt, was spurred
Into the journey of service by Your loving hand,
Despite crippling weaknesses, obstacles
Pitfalls, adversity, worry and doubt
Ventured forth in Your strength by Your will,
All to the glory of You O. God, onward in Your hands.
From the invocation you get a road map of the entire epic. Most involve a hero who must go on some kind of journey, where the journey is much more than the hero can handle. Hero's an interesting name for the protagonist of epics, because the so called hero's weaknesses are always resurfacing throughout the journey depicted in the story. These journeys though seem to all follow a set pattern. There seems to be an ignorant pleasant bliss at the beginning, where the, we'll keep hero, for lack of a better term, where the hero's journey has not even reached the dreams of the hero, the hero's gifts are unrealized, and the hero is safely idle, but something spurs him into action.
For me, my safe place was life at Christchurch. I thought I would be there forever. I couldn't imagine leaving. I had dreamed of being a teacher, and I was a teacher, I had dreamed of being a football coach and I was a football coach, I had dreamed of having meaningful relationships with kids and I had those, life actualized at 24, and while I was there I grew, and learned of many new talents and interests, talents and interests that had lain fallow for years, though the seeds had been planted years before. My love a music was a seed planted back at Good Samaritan Presbyterian Church in the Hummingbird Choir, but it had been dormant for overshadowed by other interests. The seeds of my love of reading, learning, and writing was planted during my years at Hampden-Sydney, but rekindled during those six years at CCS. My love of community, friendship, and family had been planted earlier, too, but I was unaware of how important it all was. These things all came back to the forefront of who I was while I was at Christchurch, but the real growth I never would have attained until I was spurred out of that bliss of peace by loss. Like so many of the heroes of epics loss woke me from my slumber, challenging me to much more than I had ever imagined possible for me. Loss of two close students and the loss of a really close friend, the pain of their being gone, and the strength I had experienced for the first time, to be a presence of strength for others in need, outside of myself, gave me the first glimpse of the possibilities of today, but only a glimpse. There was much farther to go, for the spur out of the blissful peace is usually only the first chapter of the epic.
In the summer of 2006 I left my peaceful life at Christchurch with no job, no money, no real understanding of what was in store and headed to seminary. I thought that at least I could get my house in order during this time of learning, get some training on how to help my students cope with loss, so that when I returned to teaching I'd be more equipped, and at most it could be an amazing life changing time. It certainly was that. Around that same time I met DeAnna, and she gave my life a new type of grounded purpose, she taught me more about love than I had ever thought possible. It seems that epic hero's find their heroines once they are freed from their idleness, it was certainly the case for me.
DeAnna opened up new paths for me. Musically she inspired me to join the choir at Gloucester, something I hadn't done in years, she inspired me to play bells, which I love to listen to but can't stand playing, it's amazing what love will do, and she opened the door to for me at First Presbyterian Church in Hampton. I had amazing classes while I was at Union Seminary, but there is not one lesson that I learned in any class that taught me anything like I learned there. That experience, the loving mentorship of Dr. Bob, the relationships that DeAnna and I formed with so many people, and the freedom we were given to grow and to flourish. I would never have gained the confidence in my ability to do ministry without that development time there, which mirrors again the epic framework. After being spurred out of bliss, the period of training begins, where the hero is mentored usually by a wise sage-like figure, the word Mentor is actually derived from such a character who appears in the Odyssey. There is only one thing that stands in the way of our hero from success now, the weakness.
My weakness was doubt. Not necessarily doubt in my abilities, but doubt in my overall worthiness. I had put off the hoops toward ordination, mostly because of this fear because the hoops are daunting. And in perfect human weakness I blamed it on things like politics, and presbytery committee officials, who didn't seem to be reaching out to me, and my independent spirit who didn't want to be judged by strangers, but in actuality it was mere self doubt. I mean like I said to my dad any time he asked me if I had a penny of change to help pay at a register and I said I'm just a dumb kid, and as a kid I listened to music like Motley Crue, and Nirvana, and N.W.A., certainly ministers don't do that, I was a fraternity boy from Hampden-Sydney College, who enjoyed a good party, I was a teacher at Christchurch who just couldn't seem to make it to chapel on time every morning. I get nervous and my hands shake every time I have to dial even a friend's phone number, I've spent a night in jail, I've laughed at inappropriate jokes, I've told inappropriate jokes, I'm not politically correct, and most importantly I've never allowed myself to actively fail at anything in my life, and I wasn't going to start here. Maybe I could run away, back to the bliss. And I did, I traded the blue and orange of Christchurch for the blue and black of Blue Ridge School. I thought maybe I could use my training, serve God, and help people without having to be judged unworthy by all those committees.
And maybe it could have worked out, but epics don't work that way, and God doesn't work that way, one last inspiration was needed. And God sent it in the form of two churches about five hours apart, one in the Outer Banks and the other, the very church where we sit together and worship this morning. Our first summer in the OBX going to OBX Presbyterian Church inspired me to what I could be doing as a pastor, and what should be doing as a pastor, and this the Gordonsville Church gave me the possibility of making it an actual tangible possibility.
All that was left then was the 12 month Odyssey of the final year of Candidacy. Like the trials that faced Odysseus I would, in one year I would basically jump through all the hoops of ordination, what most people complete in three years, I had not done in the previous four, I would take one at a time in one very long year. The psychiatric evaluation, the approval for candidacy, sending a letter to the Gordonsville PNC expressing my interest, taking and passing five examinations in one weekend, not hearing anything from the PNC because they couldn't talk to me, not knowing the rules of all that and volunteering to preach, being told by Steve Brown to lay low, listening to his advice and laying low trying to be patient, hoping that the new changes to the Book of Order would pass to make it possible for a waiver of the one year minimum for candidacy, having it pass, and then asking for the Committee of Preparation to make that appeal, going before the Presbytery of Eastern Virginia to convince them to grant the appeal, having that pass with a 78-2 vote, finally getting to talk with the PNC, but having another communications issue between Presbyteries, solving those, preaching for the PNC at Providence Gum Spring, having lunch with the PNC at Shirley Mays' house, retiring to the living room so they could decide and vote, being greeted by them with open arms and a unanimous call, filling out more paperwork, riding together with the PNC to be examined by a panel called the examinations committee of the Committee on Ministry, squeaking by with a vote of 5 for and 1 against, worrying about that 1 against way too much, being announced and called by the congregation of Gordonsville, laying low again, waiting to preach at the presbytery meeting, answering the provided questions, answering the surprise questions, standing again in the hall with poor DeAnna giving Coralee a nap outside in the van. Coming in to greetings and knowing I had made it. Giving my first three sermons here, being warmed by the love and welcome I have received, and finally standing here before you all completely overwhelmed by the love and support of you all. I think I know now why it is such a hard process because all of the doubts I had about my worthiness were lost during the process, I finally internalized the truth of grace. I'm not worthy because of me, I am worthy because I am called by the writer of the epic of my life, who wrote the challenges, wrote the triumphs, wrote the love, the hope, the life, masterfully for his glory, for the writer is the only true hero of an epic because it is the writing that stands the test of time.
And that brings me to the most important feature of epics. They are written into an ongoing tradition, which means the characters coincide. Main characters of one epic become minor in another. Heroes of one are teachers in others. And that is the truth, God is writing an epic for each one of our lives. God is the most prolific epic writer in history, and he writes them in intersecting poetic brilliance, that intersecting poetic brilliance is what our scripture reading for today calls a cloud of witnesses. I thank you all for your role in the epic God is writing for me, I can only thank God as well that from this point forward as my epic journey continues in a new chapter that I can enjoy the part I will be blessed to play in the epics of you all and many others to come. Amen.