Sunday, May 20, 2012

Heritage and Identity

Heritage and Identity
A sermon delivered by Peter T. Atkinson
May 20, 2012
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Deuteronomy 8:1-10
Matthew 1:1-6 

History is important. It was written by American philosopher, George Santayana, that “Those who cannot learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.” Though I agree with him in some aspects, I think that his understanding of the importance of history falls short. We do not only learn from the mistakes of the past, we learn from the triumphs of the past as well. We learn from the struggles, the sacrifices, the songs, the stories, the thoughts, the dreams of the past because they are us. Their story is our story. The settings change the characters have different faces, but the story is one. It is our human story and our relationship with our maker. When we study the past we find out about who we are today, and we see the presence of God in our lives.
The Gospel reading for this morning was taken from the beginning of Matthew. I can bet that you have probably never heard this text as the center piece for a sermon before. Genealogies typically do not make for compelling messages. When we read the Bible and we get to those parts of Genesis or this passage in Matthew we tend to skip over them. And we don’t miss much; they are just lists of hard to pronounce names with the word begat or the father of mixed in between. There is no story just the list. Its like reading the phonebook, lots of characters but not much plot. Why does Matthew the evangelist decide to include something so seemingly trivial?
The Gospels are a unique genre of literature because they are not really histories, though they have elements of history. They are not merely stories, though they have many narrative qualities as well. They also are filled with parables and the teachings of Jesus, conversations that Jesus had with his disciples and accounts of miracles that he performed. The word Gospel, or Euaggelos, in Greek, means the Good News. The Gospels’ main function is proclamation. They are sermons. They are describing who Jesus is and what his life means. So Matthew begins his Gospel with a genealogy because in order to teach about Jesus’ identity, who Jesus is, he must place Jesus in his historical context. Human beings are not separated from those who come before us; instead we are creatures of our heritage, shaped by our heritage. None of the four Gospels begin with Jesus’ birth, instead they begin with his fore bearers. A genealogy begins the Gospel of Matthew. The other Gospels begin with accounts of John the Baptist. They go on to preach about the works of Jesus himself, but always within the framework of the past, his ancestors and their legacy within him.
Likewise if we are to truly understand who we are as Christians we must study the history of the church. It is impossible to know who we are without it. All of the triumphs and glory as well as all of the baggage that comes with 2000 years of history; it is part of who we are. 1500 years after the church was founded on Pentecost, our own denomination of Presbyterianism was founded in Scotland, by John Knox who studied and learned under Calvin in Geneva. For the past 500 years Presbyterians have been creating the heritage that we celebrate today.
On this day we look to that past with nostalgia. We've invited Tim MacLeod to join us this morning and share with us and the town of Gordonsville his beautiful piping, helping  us celebrate the history of our Presbyterian Denomination. This morning I would like to focus on just one era in the history of Presbyterianism because it is close to home for us in Virginia. This church shares roots with the earliest Presbyterian churches in the former colony of Virginia. This history  also serves as a challenge to our own modern conception of our identity as Presbyterians.
I’m going to read to you two different descriptions of churches both of which are written by those from the outside, voicing their perceptions of the goings on within the church. I want you to try to figure out which one is describing a Presbyterian Church and which one is not. The first:

The church has spread with its appeal focused especially on the common people. The churches are convened sometimes by mere enthusiasts, who, in these meetings read sundry fanatical books, and use long extempore prayers and discourses—sometimes by itinerant strolling ministers, and at present by a permanent preacher, who is well known to be intimate with known evangelical rabble rousers. Their sole purpose is to spread their religion to all parts of this colony, using emotional frenzy, undermining the true church at every step.[1]

Ok that is the first, here is the second.

The church is in a low state. A surprising negligence appears in attending on Publick worship; and an equally surprising Levity and Unconcernedness in those who attend. Godliness is not common. There is a general malaise in the congregation. The sermons are dull and the people are contented by the stale teachings from the pulpit.[2]

Which is the Presbyterian Church as described in those two passages? Is the Presbyterian Church the one described as filled with emotional frenzy, or is the Presbyterian Church the one described as stale and dead? People on the outside never quite understand do they. Many look at Presbyterians today and stereotype us in certain ways.  
One common stereotype of us is that we are the frozen chosen, based on our unwillingness to show any emotion in church, and also our affirming of the doctrine of Predestination. There is also a popular YouTube personality called Betty Butterfield, ( )  her shtick is that she is trying to find a church, so she goes to different churches participates in the service then reports back on YouTube about her experiences. Her descriptions are very irreverent but filled with stereotypical denominational characteristics, satirically exaggerated but pretty spot on. The Presbyterian one is exceptionally well done. First off you have to picture Betty Butterfield’s character. She is actually a he, dressed up as a southern woman who wears a moo moo and way too much make up. She has a leaning toward speaking in tongues and such things like that, so the Presbyterian Church for her is a culture shock. She first off the bat is surprised by how quiet the church is. She says that you could hear a pin drop, and even the children were quiet, she says if any of the kids opened their mouths at all their mothers would just pinch ‘em! I can remember being pinched like that on occasion. She also complains that the service is old fashioned and boring, which is why she says that the average age in the church is 95. And she says that she cannot understand the sermon because it is too academically rigorous. She is complimentary on one aspect of the Presbyterian Church, and that she says is the program for the women. She says that you can’t sneeze in there without 6 women bringing you a casserole. All of them green beans and onions. Obviously, there is much more to us than that, but these are some of the perceptions of the Presbyterian Church outside of these walls.
The truth is that the first of the two readings describes the Presbyterian Church in Virginia in the 1740’s and it was written by an outsider, the Reverend Patrick Henry, whose nephew and namesake, was the famous American Patriot. He describes the group of Presbyterian dissenters in Hanover County as enthusiastic, rabble, fanatical, and frenzied. Rev. Henry was the head of the Hanover Anglican Parish, the established state church, which is the church described in the second of the two readings. His description of the Hanover dissenters is very biased and a little off base, but it describes a church that is a real force. It is very interesting that both his description of the Presbyterians in the 1740’s and Betty Butterfield’s satire of today are both stereotypes of the same church. They could not be any further apart.
The people he is describing are supposed to be in his church, but refuse. The Hanover Church is alive and flourishing despite the fact that attending services was all but illegal. Colonial Virginia did not have religious freedom like we know today. The Anglican Church was the established church. Failure to attend the Anglican services resulted in fines. So these Presbyterians were fined, persecuted, and sometimes jailed for their religious convictions, but yet they were not swayed from their faith. If we were not allowed to worship here in this fine old building because it was against the law how would we react? Would it matter? Would we be here? Would we care?
The Presbyterian preacher who came to lead the Hanover dissenters was the child of a Scottish Immigrant by the name Samuel Davies. If you’ll notice in your bulletin that the Prayer of Preparation and the Prayer of Confession both were written by him as well as our opening hymn. He was a published poet and famous for his oratory skills. I’ve read a great many of his sermons and they definitely were not mindless rabble, but they were filled with life and emotion. They are very intellectual, highly evangelical (or based in the Gospels), and quite inspiring even today.
My purpose for telling the story of the Hanover Presbyterians is three fold. The first is to challenge us. The Presbyterian Church in Virginia has a rich past full of energy. It has a tradition of being the place to be, a place of life, a place busting at the seems. In Hanover they were forced to worship outside because they could not fit everyone in their small meeting house. They were lively, and they were missional, they were among the first to baptize and educate African slaves. They cared for each other. They cared for their communities, and they expanded. We can create that again. We can have that same energy here; it is in our Tradition, much older than anything rigid and stuffy. Our tradition holds education high, literacy high, mutual forbearance, the free exchange of ideas, and above all caring for each other. Let us always strive to do so.
The second reason to bring up the Hanover dissenters is to give us a chance to be inspired by our fore bearers. Their zeal, their talent, and their piety is truly inspiring. Presbyterians have been established in America for so long now that we often forget that it was not always the case. It was on the backs of these peoples’ piety and audacity that our religious freedom was won. Their stubborn belief in strong teaching and pious living made their church strong in the face of opposition. Today we have our own opposition, dwindling numbers, growing antagonism for faith in the public arena, expanding secularism, educational systems that are ambivalent about faith at best and downright hostile to it at worst, but we can overcome it because of the third major reason I chose to talk about our unique history.
That third is a major part of the first two, and is no doubt the most important. God is with us. Many times it is easier to see the Spirit working in the past. It surely was working with the Hanover Dissenters. The presence of God, God’s providence, directed their steps as they created the Presbyterian Church in Virginia. They are witnesses to that fact. God is working with us too. Oh God our Help in Ages past IS our hope for years to come. It is harder to see the spirit working today as we struggle through difficult transition, but it is there. Guiding us, may we just allow ourselves to be led. The fact that an English teacher is called to preach this morning about God guiding the steps of his 8th generation great grandfather is a testament to God’s working in the world. There is no way it could have been predicted outside of the Providence of God. And I thank God that I have this opportunity, and that we, standing on the shoulders of the great cloud of witnesses that have come before us, directed by God's Holy Providence can do amazing things in this little church, in this little town.  Let us pray!

Father God, Almighty and Just, guide our steps as you have those who have come before us. May we find strength and comfort in the witness of our heritage. May we be a strong part of that heritage, always building up your church. May we learn from them, from each other, and from You. As we head into the future lead us in your ways that we may walk along your path as so many have walked before beside you. It is only through your power that it is possible. To You, oh God who works all things to Good, we humbly pray in the name of your Son, Jesus Christ. Amen

[1] Reverend Patrick Henry, et al. “To the House of Burgesses” from Meade’s Old Churches, Ministers, and Families of Virginia (Philadelphia, 1891), 429.
[2] Samuel Davies, The State of Religion among the Protestant Dissenters in Virginia; in a Letter to the Rev. Mr. Joseph Bellamy, of Bethlem, in New-England: from the Reverend Mr. Samuel Davies, V.D.M. in Hanover County, Virginia (Boston, 1751).