Sunday, June 24, 2012

What Is Evil

What Is Evil
A sermons delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
June 24, 2012
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville Virginia
Romans 12: 9b
Luke 11: 14-23 

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
            For your eyes show us the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

So this week we continue our journey through the "Marks of a Christian" according to Paul's Letter to the Romans 12:9, and we've made it all the way the verse 9b, which says simply "hate what is evil," a short but surely loaded text. Last week I paired the verse with a passage from the gospels that reflected a scene from the life of Jesus that paralleled the text. I tried to do the same this week, so here is Jesus casting out a demon from Luke 11: 14-23.
4 Now he was casting out a demon that was mute; when the demon had gone out, the one who had been mute spoke, and the crowds were amazed. 15 But some of them said, “He casts out demons by Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons.” 16 Others, to test him, kept demanding from him a sign from heaven. 17 But he knew what they were thinking and said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself becomes a desert, and house falls on house. 18 If Satan also is divided against himself, how will his kingdom stand? —for you say that I cast out the demons by Beelzebul. 19 Now if I cast out the demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your exorcists cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. 20 But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out the demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you. 21 When a strong man, fully armed, guards his castle, his property is safe. 22 But when one stronger than he attacks him and overpowers him, he takes away his armor in which he trusted and divides his plunder. 23 Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. [1]  

"Whoever is not with me is against me," those are difficult words in today's world, aren't they? They are the kind of words that separate people rather than bringing them together, and here we see Jesus saying them, and in our text for this Sunday we have, "Hate what is evil." Hate, there are many people in this world today who would say that hate itself is evil. So here we are in week 2 of our marks of a Christian series and we've already stumbled on some challenging stuff. If last week's cry for us to live, love, and be genuine wasn't hard enough, here we are this week having to hate evil. The Luke passage seems to paint a simple picture of it all. Have you ever thought that if you were a character in the Bible, faith, the walk, being a Christian, all of it would be so much simpler? When you have demons self identifying, and you have Beelzebub and Satan rearing their ugly heads in the light of day and in public, it is so much easier to spot evil. Or if we could be in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, there would be a ring that is evil and we could destroy it, or maybe even be Batman in Gotham City, there'd be tons of villains to defeat, or in some western where we know that evil is the guy on the black horse. Or if we could be Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, it is obvious who the enemy is, the empire and Darth Vader, easy enough go fight them, hate them, destroy them. They are evil and we know it, but our world is more like the world where all of a sudden Darth Vader turns to Luke and says, "I'm Your Father" in those immortal words of The Empire Strikes Back. Now everything that he thought he knew about evil has been turned upside down, and his new mission is not just to defeat evil, but to redeem the man who was his father, hating evil, but looking for the possibility of goodness behind the evil mask.
Such is our post modern world. It is hard for us to know what evil is. It seems harsh to us to label anything or anybody as evil, but here in this passage we are called, that one of the marks of a Christian is to "Hate what is evil," but what is evil?
On my final exam for my World Literature students I posed a question to them about the nature of evil. I chose four quotes to frame the question, then the question. I want to share the question with us as a way to start getting at what evil is. I used the quotes to get them thinking. I'll do the same for us this morning. Each Quote gets at a different idea of what evil is.

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

 Here is the question I asked them:

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

 How would you answer that? Have you ever thought about it? If you look at your bulletin I chose three of the responses and printed them there for you. These are direct quotations from three of my students, and I chose them because they get at three different sides of the fence, if a fence has three sides. . .
The first one says:
"Evil is the opposite of love. To give yourself completely is love. Taking in completely, on the other hand, is evil. When one spreads love by giving to all rather than taking from all, then joy can be found in the world." 

I liked that one. It seemed like a definition of evil that could be positive and beneficial. He really gets at some of the main ideas of what I had hoped to teach them, but isn't hate truly the opposite of love, and if so, how can you hate evil, as we are called to do without become evil yourself. . . Problematic, but let's keep that idea on the back burner as we proceed.
The next two seem to reflect two popular secular ideas about what evil is if it exists at all. The student writes:
"There are opinions of evil and what evil things are, but there is nothing in the world everyone can agree is evil. There are too many different aspects of life to say one thing is good or evil because one thing that may be helping one person could be destroying another person and vice versa." 

He is basically holding up the relativists point of view, very popular today. Evil is a mere matter of opinion, and since there are so many different opinions, then there must be no such thing as something that is absolutely evil, and by the way there is nothing absolutely good either, and no absolute truth. Very prevalent among my students.
Leaving us with the third student, which is very similar to the second, just more informed, from a anthropology standpoint, more educated, erudite, and intellectually honest, yet arrogant, if you didn't think so just ask him, writing. . .

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

Basically he is saying, like student number 2, just going one step further, stating that we as a society determine evil, based on our society's standards, but you can see from his use of quotation marks, that he sees moral scale and system as a bogus artificial made up kind of thing that those in power use over those who lack power, but there is no truth behind it. They are merely arbitrary standards that have seemed to work for us, maybe, or at least until we evolve and don't need them anymore.
Again I'll pose the question to you all. What is evil? Does it exist? Is it real? Is it one thing or many? Is it easily definable? Is it embodied in a devil type character, you know a little red dude who lives beneath the ground, but comes up to haunt and scare, or to sit on our shoulders and debate with the little cartoon angel we have on the other shoulder? Or is evil within human beings? Is it merely a manifestation of human sin? Do you know evil when you see it? Can you look at an event or a person or an idea and say, that's evil? Was Adolf Hitler evil? Is driving an airplane into skyscrapers in the middle of a normal workday morning evil? Is molesting a number of young innocent boys evil? Is the systematic slaughter of a race evil? Is slavery evil? Yes, Yes, Yes. It seems to me that the relative argument only exists in the vacuum of a philosophical academic discussion because when you start looking at examples of evil, it is not hard to find and distinguish them. It may be uncomfortable; it may be easier to avoid the topic of evil altogether.
In our Sunday School class we looked at a Native American creation myth. One of the things we noticed was they did not seem to have a concept of evil, at least according to that story. And it was brought up that some Native American cultures don't even have a word for evil. Wouldn't that be nice, to look out at the world and not see evil because you have no word to describe it, would that mean it doesn't exist then? Of course it would still exist. . . a cosmic idea like evil is not dependant, as much as I, and other English Teachers would hope, is not dependant on vocabulary. Even without the word evil exists. What if you had a society who did not have a word for evil, but they were involved in human sacrifice. . . would that not make it evil? I mean they don't have a word for evil, how could it be?
The Greeks actually have two words for evil, and both are used within the confines of our passage The first is this week's "hate what is evil." Later on in the "Marks of a Christian" passage, the English word "evil" is found again: v. 17, "do not repay evil for evil." These words for evil from the original Greek language are actually two completely different words. In "hate what is evil" you have "poneros" used for evil, and in "do not repay evil for evil" you have a completely different word entirely, "kakos." Getting at the difference between these two words gives us a deeper insight into what is going on in this text. I looked at a lot of different sources to get to the bottom of the difference between these words. According to Strong's Greek Lexicon, the difference is Kakos describes the quality according to its nature, poneros, according to its effects. In other words Kakos is describing evil in a person, and in that being a person who is less than what they were created to be, something missing, and Poneros refers with the hazardous effects of wicked or evil deeds.
When we read this passage like this we seem to be more in line with the overall Gospel message of loving our neighbor, and/or our enemies, rather than hating them . This passage is not asking us to hate people, but to hate evil, and its effects, but now what are evil effects? How can we get at what exactly signifies something as evil? "Poneros" gets at things that cause toil, burdens, struggles, pain. We can look at all of those things and see evil right, maybe, but sometimes those struggles, burdens, and pain are the things that make us grow, so that is hardly evil, right? People who suffer no struggle never grow, people who suffer no pain, don't get stronger, people who are unburden seem to shrink and become weaker, mere shades of their former selves, so I have trouble with this narrow idea of the essence of evil. Evil can't just be the things that make us uncomfortable or work harder. To me that is too much like heading into the realm of relativity, you know, I don't like it if it makes me struggle. Evil seems to be bigger, more devastating.
It seems to me that the best way of looking at what is evil, is not just what is burdensome, but what destroys life, both physically and spiritually. If God is good, and created life for living, then destroying life would be the opposite of good, evil. Now let's look at our list of things that I posed as being evil earlier. Hitler--putting the world at war, systematic killing of Jews, repression of human freedom, Hitler's got it all. Driving an airplane into skyscrapers in the middle of a normal workday morning, yes destroying of life, so many lives on that day, but also the after effects, fear, reduction of freedom, invasion of privacy, going to war. All over the news this week: molesting a number of young innocent boys, lives destroyed, so many victims, and so many people hurt. It's evil.  And finally slavery, yes the ultimate evil. It destroys the human will and the human spirit because it reduces a human to being a tool. I called slavery the ultimate evil, because though it does not physically kill in most cases, rather it kills everything about what it means to be human. And slavery takes on many forms, chained slavery, slavery to the state, slavery to an idea, slavery of the mind, slavery to fear, and of course slavery to sin.
These are all things that we are called to hate. There is always the danger though, and that is the power of hate to become an evil. . . I started this morning by looking at a few movie versions the struggle between good and evil. Most of them try to show this danger. In The Lord of the Rings there is a constant threat that the ring that Frodo is called to destroy will come to possess him, turning him toward the evil. In Star Wars, Return of the Jedi, when Luke finally faces Vader, his father, and the emperor, the emperor tries to use Luke's hatred of evil to turn him to the Darkside of the force. In both the heroes are faced not only with the evil that they are fighting against but also the capacity for evil that is within them. Frodo and Luke both persevere and resist, but for us there is always that danger. It is just as true for us. As we work hard to try to keep 911 from happening again, we are constantly in threat to become the evil we are fighting. It is not that we aren't supposed to fight evil, we are, but we have to be constantly vigilant that we don't lose ourselves in the fight allowing the hatred of evil to overwhelm us. When we found and killed Osama Bin Laden I wrote the following poem:

Although on this day the free world rejoices,
Part of me stops because being the hand of justice
Is dangerous. It is too much power, and I pray
It will not corrupt as it tends to do. Especially
When justice is wrapped in the flag of vengeance
And the proud man stands above, satisfied,
Taking credit for the triumph of Good over Evil,
But by what means? May we seek a world
Where Evil is overcome with Good, where
Vengeance and Justice are in God’s hands,
For it is only finite justice that we can do,
Temporary, incomplete, and only partial good,
With the shadow of Evil rising again behind us
In the eclipse of our increasing, ever escalating
Misguided, but well intentioned action. 

I'm not saying that he shouldn't have been killed, I'm saying that it was evil to kill him, and we have to hate what is evil, even when it is within ourselves, even when it is a "necessary" evil. It is really easy to let our need for revenge, or our hatred of an evil act transform us, and we can't do that.
This idea leads us straight into our text for next week, which states, "hold fast to what is good." We must because hating evil is a slippery slope, and though we are called to hate what is evil, we know that hatred us leaves us hanging over a pit, and our only chance is to hold fast to what is good. God give us the strength. May it ever be so.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Lk 11:14-23). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Let Love Be Genuine

Let Love Be Genuine
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
June 17, 2012
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Romans 12:9
Matthew 23: 13-28

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
            For your eyes show us the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

So I told you last week that I was going to be preaching on the "Marks of a Christian" text from Romans 12: 9-21 for the next few weeks, and so we are. I decided that I would like to look at each section of it, and so we begin this week with the first half of verse 9, which reads, "Let love be genuine," which I chose for the title of this sermon. Since that passage was so short, I chose a related text for the New Testament Lesson. In this text from the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is rebuking the Pharisees for being hypocrites. It is probably the most scathing criticism that Jesus makes of anyone. This is Matthew 23: 13-28:
13 “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them. 15 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.
16 “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears by the sanctuary is bound by nothing, but whoever swears by the gold of the sanctuary is bound by the oath.’ 17 You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the sanctuary that has made the gold sacred? 18 And you say, ‘Whoever swears by the altar is bound by nothing, but whoever swears by the gift that is on the altar is bound by the oath.’ 19 How blind you are! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred? 20 So whoever swears by the altar, swears by it and by everything on it; 21 and whoever swears by the sanctuary, swears by it and by the one who dwells in it; 22 and whoever swears by heaven, swears by the throne of God and by the one who is seated upon it.
23 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. 24 You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!
25 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26 You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean.
27 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. 28 So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. [1]
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! I hope that all of you are asking yourselves now: What does a sweet sentiment like "let love be genuine" have to do with that harsh indictment by Jesus of the Pharisees? We'll get there, but first I want to talk some vocabulary. Hey, I'm and English teacher, and a self confessing word nerd, so I get excited about things like this. The word I want to look at is genuine. I put in the bulletin there at the bottom because I had the space, the four definitions of "genuine."
1. possessing the claimed or attributed character, quality, or origin; not counterfeit; authentic; real: genuine sympathy; a genuine antique.
2. properly so called: a genuine case of smallpox.
3. free from pretense, affectation, or hypocrisy; sincere: a genuine person.
4. descended from the original stock; pure in breed: a genuine Celtic people. 

Which of these are we talking about when we read in Romans 12: "Let love be genuine?" I want to come back to definitions 1, 2, and 4 in a minute because I think they add value to our understanding of this text, but not until we look at definition #3, which I think really gets to the original meaning of this word, and the connection it makes to Jesus' tirade against the Pharisees. Definition 3 says: "free from pretence, affectation, or hypocrisy," and I had to look up "affectation;"  it means "the appearance of a quality that is not really possessed." So if we are to look at the word genuine in the context we find that it means that in love there must not be hypocrisy. Love must be true if it is to actually be love. If love is not true, then is it still love? This is one great example of the Bible Translators doing a good job because the Greek word that is translated as "genuine" is actually ἀνυπόκριτος (anypokritos). . . do you hear it? " an-hupokritos"... You can actually hear the word hypocrite within it. In Greek the prefix "an" alpha-nu, is a negating prefix, like we would say a word like not, and then hupokritos, which our word hypocrite is a direct cognate. The full line is "h agaph ἀνυπόκριτος" (ha agape anupokritos). It has a nice sweet sounding ring to it, but how biting to us as human beings. It sounds so easy and simple, but it is one of the hardest things in the world to actually do and be, to simply let love be genuine, without hypocrisy.
I want to talk a little bit about where the word Hupokritos comes from in the Greek language. It is actually the word they used for stage actor. It's cool to think about hypocrisy in that way. A person is playing a role, and are not being real or genuine. They are acting. How true? Shakespeare wrote, "All the world is a stage and we are merely players. . . one man in his time plays many parts." Doesn't that ring true for us and our world. So often we play the part of something we are not, to fit in, or to not disrupt the herd, to get along, to make our relationships work for us, to manipulate those around us, to not allow ourselves to be hurt, to protect our true selves from the dangers of abandonment, or cruelty, or judgment, so we can be admired for being smart or talented or strong, and in the end so that we can be loved.  We act so that we can be loved, but in this text love is supposed to not be that way, but we look around us and find that it is.
This is such a truism about our world that it has found its way into the popular music of our culture. Three of my favorite songs deal with this theme. One is Billy Joel's, "The Stranger." He writes and sings: ( )

Well, we all have a face that we hide away forever
And we take them out and show ourselves when everyone has gone.
Some are satin, some are steel,
Some are silk and some are leather.
They're the faces of a stranger,
But we'd love to try them on.

Well, we all fall in love,
But we disregard the danger,
Though we share so many secrets,
There are some we never tell.
Why were you so surprised that you never saw the stranger?
Did you ever let your lover see the stranger in yourself?

Joel gets at the fact that we tend to hide our true selves from the people we love? Bruce Springsteen, another favorite of mine, gets at the same theme in his song called "Brilliant Disguise." In the beginning of the song, he is showing how he doesn't trust the woman who he is with, wondering, saying, "Is that you, baby, or just a brilliant disguise," but then as the song goes forward you get a glimpse of what the real problem is, he sings: 

I tried so hard baby but I just can't see
What a woman like you is doing with me.  

I'm just a lonely pilgrim I walk this world in wealth
I want to know if it's you I don't trust cause I damn sure don't trust myself 

His doubts about his relationship and the way that he feels about her is all wrapped up in his insecurity and wondering whether she is being true because he isn't being true. And then the song ends with him putting up walls, and him believing that she is doing the same.

Now you play the loving woman I'll play the faithful man
But just don't look too close into the palm of my hand
We stood at the alter the gypsy swore our future was right
But come the wee wee hours maybe baby the gypsy lied
So when you look at me you better look hard and look twice
Is that me baby or just a brilliant disguise

What a shame? What is the truth there? We just never know. . . We never know what the other person is thinking, and since we have our own protections up we assume that they do as well. Another word for this is cynicism, or distrust, or well the very essence of sin.
Which brings me to my favorite of the three, from a songwriter who I think is just absolutely brilliant, a man named Townes Van Zandt, who wrote, "The Tower Song" which deals indirectly with the same thing, only showing the results of these defenses we build around ourselves. ( )

So close and yet so far away
And all the things I'd hoped to say
Will have to go unsaid today
Perhaps until tomorrow
Your fears have built a wall between
Our lives and all what loving means
Will have to go unfelt it seems
And that leaves only sorrow
You built your tower strong and tall
Can't you see, it's got to fall someday

The truth he is getting at is that the towers that we build around us are fleeting and they will fall. They will fall because they are not built around the truth, they are built around lies, an act, and are just a house of cards ready to fall at any moment. The foolish man built his house upon the sand and the rains came a tumbling down. . .
Now all three of these songs are talking about romantic relationships, but the truth is the same in all of our relationships, from our most personal to our most casual and fleeting. There seems to be major parts of ourselves that we do not put forward for all to see as we play our part in our act. There is a total lack of the genuine in love when this is the case.
I was having a discussion with my students about what are important maxims to live by. One of my students said, "My parents taught me that it is important to work hard, so that  you can also play hard." He thought that was a good maxim to live by. I asked him though, doesn't that compartmentalize your life. I mean I agree with the importance of work ethic, but to completely separate work and play, is that really a healthy division of yourself. I asked him, "What do you do when those two versions of yourself conflict with each other? How do you keep them separate? What happens when they collide?" He said, "They never do." So I changed gears and asked him, "Then can every one look at your facebook page? Your parents? Your boss?" He got it. . . What do we keep hidden?
Pretty much the point of the Commencement speech I made at Blue Ridge was that the world needs those young men to love, and I completely believe that, but that love must be genuine because the world is filled enough with the false type, as we print and print money to keep our economy affloat, as we focus on the lives of celebrities and their relationships instead of our own, when we are afraid of words, choosing instead to live in the politically correct land of euphemism, when our marriages don't last, and children are growing up with wounds that cause them to build their own new towers, where charity giving is a tax right off and community service is a resume builder. The only hope is love, but how can we make love be genuine, when we see so many manifestations of it around us that is false and hypocritical, how do we trust in love again, if we ever truly did in the first place. . . Father forgive us, we know not what we do, and we never have. How do we make love be genuine?

It is here that I want to look at the other pieces of the genuine definition. I've already shown how the Greek word means without hypocrisy, but when we translate it into English the word expands because genuine has multiple meanings. The first there is 1. True, authentic, real. Yes that is what we need. The second is 2. Properly, or so called. .  . as if love itself would no longer be proper or authentic if it were not true. It would cease to be, and 4. Perhaps the most important, "descended from the true stock." It is this definition that is as close to the derivation of the word genuine as you can get because the root "gen" is the same one you find in genus, and genesis, and genetics, meaning literally "from birth" when something is genuine it is the way it is supposed to be, the way that it was created to be, the way that it is in its true form. So how do we make love be genuine again, how do we do this if we seem to be surrounded by so much love that isn't genuine. . . The answer is we can't.  .
But that is not what the text in Romans says. It doesn't say make love genuine. It doesn't say that we need to make ourselves love in a genuine way, it doesn't even say we need to make ourselves love, it says to "Let love be genuine." In other words it already is, if only we'd let it be. To let love be genuine, we simply, but I realize it is difficult, have faith that love is the answer, let it be, and then recognize the wonders of it. Again it comes down to faith rather than doubt. Trust rather than distrust, reality rather than hypocrisy. Love. . .
And so on Father's day, I stand in awe of the faith that is possible in the power of love. I have learned so much in the 2 + years of being a father, and I know that I will be humbled even more by what I will learn as the future becomes present and then past. I know all of you who are Fathers know what I am talking about, because of the love that our children inspire within us, and the amount of love that they need, and man do they need that love. Look at the history of our God the Father, and the amazing steadfast love that He has for us, and in that is true hope. . . True hope based on the power of love. True hope based on knowing that love's foundation is God, and God is the very definition of genuine love, because all that is was created by Him. Help us to see, help us to believe, and help us to follow in that amazing example of genuine love, which includes even the cross. Amen.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Mt 23:13-29). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Too Afraid to Love

Too Afraid to Love
A sermon delivered by Peter T. Atkinson
June 10, 2012
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Romans 12:9-21 

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
            For your eyes show us the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

 By way of introduction I’d like to say a few words about the reading before I begin the sermon. I’ve decided to preach on the following text the next few weeks because it is such a dense text, and it is of the highest importance. It is labeled in my Harper’s Study Bible as the Marks of a Christian, in other words, this is a description of just what a Christian is supposed to look like, but I wonder if someone was given this description would they be able to pick most of us Christians out of a lineup. If I were to hold up a mirror to myself I don’t think I fit this description. I know I’d like to, but I certainly fall short, and I don’t think I’m the only one, and this week I want to take a stab at why that is. But here is the passage, Romans 12:9-21.

9Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. 14Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 21Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. 

There are probably a bunch of things that cause us to fall short of this description, but I’m going to posit this morning that the cause is fear, which is interesting because for years we used fear to try to convert people to become Christians. Look back through the almost 2000 years of Christianity. Once Christianity became the religion dominating the west, fear became the typical means of conversion. There were Inquisitions, Crusades, Witch Hunts, Indulgences, “when the coin in the coffer rings the soul from hell springs” and the ever famous Fire and Brimstone preaching. The most famous American example perhaps is Jonathan Edwards’ famous “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” where he proclaims that:
“The Bow of God’s Wrath is bent, and the Arrow made ready on the String, and Justice bends the Arrow at your Heart, and strains the Bow, and it is nothing but the mere Pleasure of God, and that of an Angry God, without any Promise or Obligation at all, that keeps the Arrow one Moment from being made drunk with your Blood. . .

O Sinner! Consider the fearful Danger you are in: ‘Tis a great Furnace of Wrath, a wide and Bottomless Pit, full of the God, whose wrath is provoked and incensed by Sin; you hang by a slender thread, with the Flames of Divine Wrath flashing about it, and ready every moment to singe it, and burn it asunder; and you have no Interest in any Mediator, you have no interest in  nothing to lay hold of to save yourself, nothing to keep off the flames of wrath, nothing of your own, nothing that you ever have done, nothing that you can do, to induce God to spare you one Moment. . .”[1]

But the church doesn’t sound much like that anymore, at least not the Presbyterian Church. Would you sit in a service that put forth such a message? I know I would not pass a preaching and worship class, preaching something like that. Because hopefully we have learned that fear does not produce the type of “genuine love” to which Paul’s words refer. Instead it creates a response dominated by panic and desperation. It calls us to Christ as a chance to protect ourselves from eternal torment, us trying to control our destiny with no sense of God’s love. Emotion rules when fear is the trigger, and rational thought is left behind. The result is a religion that tries to control people, not the religion that sets people free.
Fear is a powerful force. Have you ever been paralyzed by fear of anything? Dr. Bob, my mentor during my time in Hampton, preached a sermon on "How to listen to a sermon" making the statement that a preacher stands at the pulpit with a mirror on his/her face first. That is definitely the case because much in this world frightens me. I’m afraid of snakes. We had a snake slither across our front walk up to our house this week, and I can't walk out the front door without doing a complete survey of the ground from the door to my truck before I step out of the house. Then while I’m walking to the truck my eyes are glued to the ground, and anytime something moves, I lose my breath, and jump. It’s not a rational response. I’m also afraid of heights. For six years I was the offensive coordinator of the Christchurch Varsity football team. I called plays from the sideline for my first two seasons. The defensive coach was up in the tower, but I never felt like I was getting a good enough view of the field, so that third season I went up into some of the highest, rickety, windy, wooden structures ever to be constructed by the Athletic Boosters at some of Virginia’s Private Schools. At least I did for three games. I became so dizzy by the height that I couldn’t function. I worried about being caught up in the excitement of the game and jump around and fall off. I remember at Hampton Roads Academy, I was up in their tower, there was a railing around so that was safe, but right behind where I was to stand there was a hole, the very same hole through which I had climbed the some 40 feet straight up the wooden beams. I just knew that we would score a touch down and I would forget where I was, jump in the air, land behind where I was standing, and fall through that hole and I would kill myself on the fall, hitting every beam on the way down, except for the beam that was already fallen off due to its rusty nails. The chances of me actually falling were slim. I was actually pretty I safe. I knew that rationally, but tell that to my pounding heart and my increasingly dizzying senses. Fear is quite a force.
But little fears like that aren’t necessarily what keep us from living up to what a Christian should be. No we all have other fears, more subtle, more powerful. We are fearful about our health, our future, our life, our finances, and our children. All of these things dominate our thoughts constantly because many of them seem so uncontrollable and overwhelming. It is difficult for us to hear words from Christ whispering, “consider the lilies of the field,” or “Or His Eye is on the Sparrow.” We can’t hear God’s still small voice saying, “Fear Not, for I am with you, I know every star in the sky and my thoughts of you are more than the grains of sand on the beach.” We don’t hear it because the voice of fear is louder, and it is simulcast 24 hours a day via satellite, digitally brought to you by, “You’re in good hands with All State” directly to your living room, kitchen, bedroom, and even in the bathroom at the Buffalo Wild Wings, any time you would like it, available to you without having to get off your couch, just push the ON button on your remote and be bombarded.
Stay tuned, on News 3 at 11, learn how to protect yourself from Identity Theft, every 3 seconds someone’s identity is stolen.
Heart Disease is the number one killer of all adult males in this country, tune in at 6 for the top 10 foods you can eat to reduce your risk of heart attack.
Planning on going on a trip? Tune into Fox and Friends for tips to make your flight safer, cheaper, and your security waiting time shorter.
Gas prices are going to reach all time highs over the holiday weekend, tune into CNN for live energy crisis updates.
There is a hurricane off the coast of the Carolinas moving toward the East Coast and could be here by midnight tune in to Fox Nightly news at 10 for the latest track of the storm.
The 7-11 on the circle in Gordonsville was robbed at gunpoint, the police are looking for two suspects who are thought to be young men between the ages of 18-25.
Terror on the roadways fatal accidents are happening twice as often as last summer. Some blame gas prices, others blame low seatbelt fines, others blame former President Bush, who really is to blame, only on The View.
Kids are being left behind in schools, taxes may be raised or maybe we should lower standards.
Flip Flops linked to rising number of skin cancer cases.
Violence on the rise in Iraq, stay the course or pull out now.
Just in from the Department of Homeland Security, the terrorist alert awareness level raised from yellow to orange.
Take control of what your kids are exposed to on the net, predators are lurking everywhere.
Protect your kids from schoolyard theft, do not bring anything valuable to school, if you think its neat, others will too and take it from you, this from the National Center for Crime Prevention.
Is your child normal? How can you be sure? Special Report Monday, live from inside your local public school.
This world is getting hotter and hotter, and filling up with more and more of our waste. There are more hurricanes every year. Floods like the world has never seen have devastated the mid west. War over energy is looming, is it the Cold War all over again, or could it be World War III. The bow of Islamic Extremism points its WMD’s at our very existence with nothing keeping them from pulling the trigger, but the outcome of this next election. Nuclear holocaust, race war, energy crisis, global warming. The world is coming to an end, the apocalypse is now. None of your thoughts, none of your instincts, none of your prayers, none of anything coming from you can save yourself, only our information can save you. Tune in next week for the end of the world update.
The sermon of the First Secular Church of Television News sounds an awful lot like Jonathan Edwards, using fear to create an emotional response. And let us not forget the anthem chorus of commercials. This segment has been brought to you commercial free from Geico Insurance, protect yourself and save 15%, so smart even a caveman can do it. No longer Blessed Assurance Jesus is mine, it is now Blessed Insurance Geico is mine, that English Lizard gives me peace of mind. Saving you money, pay us in case, your life gets risky, we’ll keep you safe.”  Fear is a powerful controlling force and the world knows it!
We would never in today’s world go to a church that tries to control us by scaring us, but we tune in to the news everyday. What can we do? Should we just not watch T.V. news? It’s not like they are making up these problems. They do exist in the world. They are our real fears. We feared long before TV. How can we as Christians overcome?
We could just ignore the problems of the world, living by blind faith that God will protect us from what we fear. Believing in an idea of what God is and what God does, bending God to our will instead of submitting. It reminds me of the joke about the preacher in the flood. The waters were rising and the preacher was sitting on his porch as the waters rose. A man in a rowboat came up and said, “Preacher, come get in this rowboat, you haven’t got much time, the water’s rising in a hurry,” but the preacher said, “no thanks don’t worry about me. If I need any help the Lord’ll take care of me.” Some time passes and the Preacher is on the second floor the water has risen flooding up to the second floor window. A second rowboat comes up, said, “Preacher come get in this boat, the waters almost covering your house, you haven’t a chance come get in this boat.” Again the preacher said, “No you don’t understand, I’ve got faith if I need any help the Lord’ll take care of me.” A little while again, the preacher is up on the roof, a man in a helicopter flies over lets out a rope ladder says, “Preacher come climb the rope get in this helicopter, the water’s high and you don’t have much time.” The preacher says, “No if I need any help the Lord’ll take care of me.” A couple minutes later, he died and is up in heaven at the pearly gates, sees St. Peter who says, “Hey what are you doing here? It ain’t time for you. What happened?” Preacher said, “I don’t know everyone came by, and I said if I need any help the Lord’ll take care of me.” St. Peter said, “Well hell, we sent two rowboats and a helicopter, what did you want?”
No, as Christians we are called to live in the world but not to be of the world. Living in the world means that these fears are real, but being not of the world means that we strive to be closer to God than we are to the world. It means that we strive to hear God’s voice amidst the noise of fear pointing us in the other direction. It means that when the world says fear our neighbor, we choose instead to love our neighbor. Easier said than done for sure.
When we look in the New Testament, I have said many times that the characters, who most reflect us are the disciples, and throughout the Gospels they never quite get it do they? They seem to be especially dense in the Gospel of Mark. The Calming of the storm story from that Gospel comes to mind. A storm comes and they are afraid. Jesus is sleeping, but with them on the boat. And they are afraid because even though they are with Jesus, a part of his ministry, capable of doing marvelous healings, witness to countless miracles they don’t quite understand. They wake him and say, “Teacher do you not see that we are in danger?” Jesus says, “Peace, Be Still” and the storm is calmed, they are in awe and wonder who is this who can calm the sea. Though close to God in proximity, they are far from God in their hearts and minds, at least at this point. As the Gospel progresses they doubt and fear many more times, but the fact that we today know about Jesus is a testament to their eventual faith. They finally understood what it meant to be close to God.
Being close to God means that you can watch the news. You should watch the news, but without letting that fear separate us from God. It doesn’t mean that you should never buy insurance. It means that you bring God into that decision through prayer. It doesn’t mean that you have no fear and doubt. It means instead that you can work through your doubt, work through your fears all with God’s help, fostering a relationship with the loving God, who holds the future in the palm of his hand. A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing.
In a world surrounded by danger, we can only get through our fear through building a strong relationship with God, and then and only then can we begin to live up to the marks of a Christian as described by Paul in his letter to the Romans. We won’t be too afraid of our neighbor to love them. Amen.

I would like for all of us to read Romans 12:9-21 this week, in preparation for next week’s sermon. Look at what it says, hold it up as a mirror before us, and think about what our individual stumbling blocks are to seeing the marks of a Christian living on our faces and in our lives. 

[1] Jonathan Edwards. “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Enfield, 1741.

Sunday, June 3, 2012


A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
June 3, 2012
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
John 14: 9-17 

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
            For your eyes show us the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

In the last bunch of weeks we have celebrated many special Sundays in the life of the Church. There was the special Sundays of Easter, then Presbyterian Heritage Sunday, then Pentecost last Sunday, and today is the last "special" Sunday for a while. It was funny last Sunday, I think it was Ruth said, "When are we just going to have a regular Sunday?" Well starting next week we have "regular" Sundays, at least on the church calendar all the way through October, but today is Trinity Sunday, where we set aside to look at one of the most puzzling, but important aspects of our Orthodox Christian Faith. The Old Testament passage, just read, I chose because it is one of the Old Testament Passages where you can find all parts of the trinity at work. The Gospel Lesson also includes all three persons of the Trinity, John 14: 9-17:
9 Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10 Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. 11 Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. 12 Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. 13 I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.

15 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate,  to be with you forever. 17 This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.
So it's Trinity Sunday, it's one of those Sundays that is on the church calendar, and I guess it has been for a long time, probably ever since the Trinity came into the doctrine, but I don't remember it. Sure I remember singing Holy, Holy, Holy every once in a while, but I don't remember ever hearing one single sermon preached on the trinity in my life. How is that possible? Have you? Do you remember one? I wonder why that is because it is one of the big doctrinal strongholds of the orthodox faith. Wars have been fought over it. Heretics excommunicated or worse because of it. The other two branches of the Abrahamic monotheistic religions, Judaism and Islam, are sure that the Christian belief in a Trinitarian God is one major area where Christians have gone astray, but we don't talk about it much. I even had a Jehovah's Witness come to the door this week, luckily we didn't get to the trinity. It seems that it's kinda like Predestination for Presbyterians, it's there but we don't talk about it much, rather we just believe in it. Why do we avoid it? Maybe because it both a very simple concept that a person can swallow easily without thinking too much, but when it is thought about, it can really blow your mind.
Russian Orthodox leader, Anthony Ugolnik writes, "The Trinity is the cross upon which the mind is crucified." I think that statement is very appropriate. It seems like the trinity, is one of those places where when your mind goes towards it, there is risk, but like the cross, on the other side is redemption, so let's walk that lonesome valley together.
Let's start at the source, in 325 at the Council of Nicaea the church father's debated the doctrine of the trinity and gave us the Nicene Creed, which puts some of the first language to the trinity that we have, other than the Bible, which we'll get to in a minute. If you look in the Hymnal you can find it there in the front.

We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is,
seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father;
through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven,
was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary
and became truly human.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son,
who with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified,
who has spoken through the prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.

The language from this that we are dealing with when talking of the trinity is One God, One Lord Jesus Christ, Holy Spirit. Lord Jesus Christ, "We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father." You can see the language starts to get tricky, and this English translation greatly simplifies it. In the original Greek, you'd get words like Homoousion, (same essence or substance) and hypostasis, (person). Those words may be intimidating to us because they are Greek, and we don't know Greek, but trust me they were difficult for the Greeks to swallow too. They are really academic, strong, specific words, and none of them are found anywhere in the Bible. This was one of the issues they ran into back in Nicaea. Is the trinity Biblical? Or did the council make it up, when they made up words like "Homoousian" and "Hypostasis"?
Both our Bible Readings from this morning point to the three persons of the Trinity. In John 14, we see Jesus speaking candidly about how he and the father are "in each other," and then also we see the Spirit being sent by the Father. In the Genesis passage, we see Elohim, or God the Father, creating, but he speaks things into being, the Word, another name for Jesus, and we also see a "wind from God, sweeping over the waters." Wind, breath, spirit, it is all the same Hebrew word, Ruach. So in the first three verses all three manifestations of the trinity already take their place. Psalm 33, v. 6 also points to the Trinity at Creation: “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and by the breath of his mouth all their host." You see it again there, breath, word, Lord. At the end of Matthew's gospel in the "great commissioning," chapter 28, verse 19: Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." Even at Jesus' own baptism, earlier in Matthew, you have the character Jesus, You have the Voice of the Father, and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove, and it all happens simultaneously.

And there are many more, and what's more, you see it in all four Gospels, you see it in Paul's letters, and you even see it in the Old Testament. That I've always thought was really cool. In seminary we were never allowed to interpret the Old Testament through the eyes of the New Testament, mostly I think because it was too easy to do, and a slippery slope, because if you see it that way, you can never see it in its own context, but in one Theology class, when talking about the Trinity, our Old Testament Bible Professor was the guest lecturer, and showed us how the Trinity is woven throughout the Old Testament, pretty cool if you ask me.
One he didn't tell us, but that I found in my research this week, and that sort of works as a transition is also from Genesis, and is the creation of Humans. Genesis 1:27, God creates humans in his own image, male and female, then commands them to be fruitful and multiply, ie. to have a child. Genesis 2:24 then says, that husband and wife become one flesh.  And so this marriage then is an “image” of God, showing how two persons become one through love, a love so powerful that it creates a third person – a child who is itself for nine months united as one with its mother. It is a pretty amazing picture of Trinitarian God who is love.
But that understanding is purely metaphorical, which is really the only way that we can understand the Trinity. Metaphors help us get closer, but they do not really allow us to get at the fullness of the Trinity. Metaphors always have limits, like that one, where the baby goes from nonexistence to creation, which is a problem for God, who is eternal in all three persons, remember, "coequal, consubstantial, coeternal with the Father." But if we remember that the metaphors are merely symbols and tools for understanding then we can use them to help us get closer to the truth.
There are some classic symbols that have flooded western culture, like the shamrock, used by St. Patrick, according to legend to explain the trinity to the Irish. The French have the fleur de lis, another symbol of the trinity, think New Orleans Saints for a visual.
Here are some metaphors, these are ideas of things that come in threes, but are really related parts of one single idea.
Speaker, word, breath- all a part of the one thing idea that is speaking. They all happen simultaneously, and you can't have speaking without each.
Past, Present, Future - all are present at each moment, and really make up what a moment is, would the spirit then be the present because it is hard to grasp, one minute it's there, then it's past, literally.
An Egg - You can't have an egg, without the three parts, shell, white, and yoke. It's also interesting that an egg is a single cell, if I remember correctly from High School Biology.
Or another one that speaks to the totality of life, all have within us Mind, Body, Soul, or physical, emotional, and intellectual.
Have you ever heard the idea that the trinity can be explained as the three forms of water: Ice, Water, Vapor
Also major music chords, are composed of three different notes, to make one whole harmonic sound.
 Fire, needs Oxygen, Fuel, and Combustion.
There are Three primary colors that make all others.
Then there is the Sun, itself, and that it gives off both light and heat.
So I hope that these metaphors help you get a better understanding of the trinity, but I want to leave you with what I think is the most important. Being an English teacher I've always been a lover of language, and there is something about the number three that I think is natural to human beings because it is found it many different languages, and that is that we tend to list things in threes. Think about it. We do it all the time. You know: plains, trains, and automobiles; glory, laud, and honor; lions, tigers, and bears. . . Just to name three. In Hebrew, sets of three represented completeness, so when in Deuteronomy when it says, love the lord your God with all you Heart, all your Soul, and all Your strength, it means everything. Your absolute entirety. It makes sense. The standard for writing papers at least at the high school level is the famous 5 paragraph essay. This form is based on the concept that three is representative of the whole because in that form you have three main ideas that all support, supposedly completely your main idea or thesis. Again there is something to it.
Ok so what. . . How can you get your mind around the trinity. without it being "crucified on it" as our Russian friend has said? The trinity represents an entire God. The God who is. . . entirely in the past, present, and future. The God who deserves all Glory, Laud, and Honor, The God, who Creates, Redeems, and Sustains. Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord our God in three persons, blessed trinity. We celebrate on this Trinity Sunday a complete God, who surpasses all understanding, yet is personal, and relational, and who is love. The special number three is the only way that we could approach completeness in description, with a poetic linguistic trick that we learned from our forbearers in faith, what a beautiful gift of God.
Let us stand and recite the refrain of the Brief Statement of Faith, found on the cards in your pews. It so beautifully describes the one triune God. . .

In life and in death we belong to God.
Through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ,
the love of God,
and the communion of the Holy Spirit,
we trust in the one triune God, the Holy One of Israel,
whom alone we worship and serve. Amen.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Jn 14:8-17). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.