Sunday, July 29, 2012

Spfff it Out part 1

Spfff it Out part 2

Spffff it Out part 3

Spfff It Out

"Spfff It Out"
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
July 29, 2012
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Romans 12:11a-b
Matthew 5: 13-16

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.

We continue our study of the "Marks of a True Christian" from Paul's letter to the Romans 12. So far we've looked at " 9 Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor." This morning we take a look at verse 11, which says, "Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit." There are two parts, but we'll take a look at them together because they are really close in meaning. To partner with this verse I chose a familiar passage, like last week, from the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew's Gospel 5:13-16.

3 “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
14 “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. [1]

 Before we start, I'd like to look at the words of our verse for this morning. Two words stand out because we rarely use them in our every day speech. One is "zeal" and the other is "ardent." Zeal is a little more familiar. The dictionary says that zeal is "eagerness and ardent interest in the pursuit of something." And there is that other word, "ardent," right in there. Now in the dictionary "ardent" is "characterized by warmth of feeling typically expressed in eager zealous support or activity" [2] And there is that word zeal, in zealous. Do you see why I kept this verse together intact? They are both talking about the same idea. The dictionary gave similar synonyms for both: fervor, fiery, hot. The Greek Root word for the word translated as ardent is the verb "leo," which means to boil. Literally "leontes" which is translated in the NRSV as ardent means boiling over as if out of control.
Again here is mirror time. We hold this description of a "True Christian"  up before our face and do we see ourselves? Are we inspired, and eager, and excited, and thrilled, and energized, and animated, and on fire, or are we instead "the frozen chosen?" If you are anything like me you are a little bit skeptical of religious fervor. I don't wonder why that is, because there is a lot of fake fervor out there, or at least it seems that way because many people "caught up" in it look the same. Whether they talk really breathy, or they hold their hands up in strange ways, or their eyes look just a little bit spacey, or they have a smile that is so strong it just doesn't look real. Joel Osteen comes to mind; he seems to do all of those at one time. It seems strange to me that if they use a word like fire to describe it there would be so much uniformity because fire is something wild, and free, and original, and above all alive. Like they say just because there is smoke, doesn't mean there is real fire. We are called to be zealous and ardent though, and I want to talk this morning about how that fire can be ignited within us, how it already is, how we are created to be naturally full of such fire, but how so much around us seems to "shhh out the fire."
We've talked at length over the past couple months about the things that make being a Christian difficult, the things in this world that seem to make everything we do so very hard. What are the things that really stifle our fires. The third verse of "This Little Light of Mine" as I we sang together during the children's time is, "don't let Satan, shhhh it out, I'm going to let it shine". What are the things in this world that blow out our fire? What grinds our gears? What robs us of our enthusiasm and our fervor? What are our barriers to having an ardent spirit for service? And then how do we get past it?
A couple of years ago when I became a candidate for ministry at a Presbytery meeting, there was a big push for growth of churches. They had this expert who had grown churches all over the country come and talk. He spoke about many strategies and gave a good talk, but the one point he kept making is that all churches have a candle of the spirit, and that candle could be extinguished, and then would die. Before I got up to be examined the Presbytery was working through some business. There was a disagreement about where money was going to come from, where it was going to go, and where cuts would need to be made. You would be amazed at the stuff that people were saying. My dad and I just kept looking at each other, remembering the talk from earlier, and would make like we were blowing out a candle. Shhhhh. When I was finally brought before the Presbytery to be examined, a man asked a good question of me, a tough question, and as I was about to answer it, he was told that the question could not be asked. The procedure was not right, and it took the place positive dialogue. Shhhhhh. It happens. How many times are we so overcome with the process that the object is forever missed? This is one of those things that turns people off and drains us of our energy. These little things get to us.
Sometimes the things are bigger though, the wind blowing out the candle seems a hurricane. This week was filled with so many to me, things that just frustrate me. One of the things that get me is the way that everything is a crisis of the moment, the way that the media and our culture raises the level of things to a point where there are only two sides, for and against, and real thought is lost in the balance. Shhhhhh.  I mean this week you couldn't eat a chicken sandwich without it being a political statement, Shhhhh, kids couldn't have a batman birthday party without being deemed insensitive, Shhhhhh, we couldn't mourn the loss of American lives without debates over firearms, Shhhhhhhh, or speculation whether the gunman was a conservative nutjob or a liberal bullied victim, Shhhhhhh. We couldn't watch the Olympic Opening ceremonies without controversy over the U.S. uniforms being made in China, Shhhhh, or whether there was enough security, Shhhhhh,  and whether saying there wasn't was a political misstep, Shhhhhh, or whether business owners deserve credit for what they create, Shhhhhh. The cynicism comes out, doesn't it. I voiced my frustration, and all I heard back was, "well it's and election year, what do you expect? That's cynicism. A snuffed out spirit is one that has grown cynical, believing that nothing matters, nothing can be done anyway, so why bother, nothing you do matters because nothing matters.  
I don't bring this up for any political reason, but rather to illustrate more of our cynicism. A former student of mine had posted some stat on his facebook page that showed how Barack Obama had kept 72% of his campaign promises, which didn't count when he compromised with Republicans. It becomes an interesting stat when that isn't taken into account. I mean why else wouldn't you keep a promise? Again, but I don't bring this up to dump on the President, but to make a point. My former student thought 72% was good, and was arguing so, and he's like 24 and supposedly idealistic and progressive. I called him out on it, saying that means he lied like 28% of the time. He said it was probably good for a president, that Bush was much worse. I'm sure he was, but is that our qualifying line? Have our standards dropped so low? Why? Cynicism, Shhhhhhhh! Oh don't worry, all politicians lie. Why? A person with an ardent spirit would demand more, and be more ourselves. Being cynical is much safe, though, than being on fire. You don't need to have an opinion. You don't need to care. You don't need to do anything because hey it doesn't matter.
Ok so we're up against all of that. How do we get through it? I've heard a term lately, referring to folks who have a religious identity. It is people of faith. There is where we must start. Faith is the cure for the common cynic because it is the opposite. A cynic, one who's light is completely out doesn't believe anything matters, sometimes they can go so far as to believe nothing really exists, but faith that things matter is a place to start. And faith can build from there. Then add to that faith, faith in a God who created all things, one God who is timeless, infinite, and omnipotent, in control of all things, and that adds something. Faith that, that God still exists providing for the world, and is involved in history, and that adds something. Then add faith that, that God loved us so much He became human, lived with us, suffered with us as us, died on the cross for us, and rose, reigning on high, and that the Spirit of God lives within us sustaining us, strengthening us, lighting the fire within us, faith in that kind of a world does something to us, or it should if realized and experienced. That has to be the place to start for Christians because in that kind of world the fire is lit for us. We are created and redeemed and we have a fire that is set within us to share.
So now how do we share it without it being ssssshhhhed out? Faith in the providence of God can help us get beyond the major squabbling in the world. We can get beyond the results and the dreamed of ends and focus instead on the means. We can love, rather than demonize, because we won't be working towards an agenda. We'll have God to work it out beyond what we are called to grasp. From here I see two important pieces in the puzzle to sustain the fire. One is call and the other is gratitude.
Call is an important piece of the puzzle because we are all very different, and we were all created for something different. We are each given unique gifts. We are each given unique strengths. We are each given unique talents. We are each given unique interests. We're all simply unique. Call is about figuring out why you are the way you are, and then applying that to the service of God in some way, your way. What is your way? One of the problems in our society that I see is that there is a great push for standardization of things: processes, paths, people, as if there were only one way of doing things, and if you don't do it that way you don't fit. Schools are set up that way. It's frustrating, as a teacher. I see so many talented kids, who aren't talented in everything get lost because they don't fit. They are a square peg and the round holed paths we have created for them are too binding. So we drug them with ritalin and other drugs to try to soften their edges rather than trying to find their skills and help them find their place, their unique place.
It happens all the time and it's not just kids. It's churches, too. How many things do we do in church because it's the church way to do things? How many talents do you have that don't quite seem to fit? We have sign-ups for certain jobs: nursery, fellowship, lay-readers, greeters, ushers, places in the choir or the bell choir, fledgling programs for our children, waiting in the wings, what do you have that we haven't thought of yet? What can you bring that isn't on a sign-up sheet. Bring it we need it. Figure out what you are called to do, and do it. You'll find that if you are working within your call, the fire, the eagerness, the ardor of your spirit will be burning out of control.
Instead we do what is expected of us, the safe, the path that has already been paved, the row that has already been plowed. Sure it's safer, but it is an extinguished fire waiting to happen. Life is one of those things that is so precious. It's got to be lived, and the way to find life is to live the life you were meant for.
A friend of mine, Jerry King, has begun a mural in the nursery. I can't wait for you all to see it, but the theme we came  up with was that God has created us each for something, and that something will be different. He wrote the caption, "When God meant you, he meant something, not nothing, not everything, but something." It will depict characters from the Bible, and you will notice that no two characters are doing the same thing. But you got to wonder, how many people after Moses went looking for God in a burning bush, how many people hung out on the beach at the Red Sea, waiting for it to part again, the first time it rained after Noah and the family got off the boat, how many folks were building arks, like people have bomb shelters today, what did the guy that Darius threw in the Lion's den after Daniel think? How many people missed out on Jesus because they were looking for another Earthly king like David? How many people are waiting in Bethlehem for Jesus to come again? How many people are waiting in buildings with pews, and steeples, and pulpits, stained glass, organs, choirs expecting the Spirit to enliven them because of those trappings of church? Shhhhhh, unless the church is the people. People burning with the fire of created purpose, called to specific service it is an extinguished flame.
Right now Renee Bloom is in Haiti. She is experiencing things we cannot even imagine. Hard work, poverty, disease, orphans, despair, danger, pain. She'll experience all of that. But in a few weeks she will come talk to us and tell us about it all, and I want you to look at the Spirit, the ardor, the zeal that will be boiling over within her because she was called, and is fulfilling that call, and will continue to be called when she gets back. One thing about being called by an infinite God, is that calls continually happen. "When God meant you he meant something, not nothing, not everything, but something." Find your something.
And then the last as I said is gratitude. Be thankful. Be thankful for the gifts and talents and call that you have, rather than constantly looking at others with longing. Jerry is painting the mural and I'm in awe of his talent, I know I don't have that talent, I'm thankful for his talent, this church is being blessed with his talent. Renee is doing her mission trip, it's great. Maybe your mission is not so far from home. Maybe it is your job and career, maybe it's raising your kids, maybe it is smiling at the person you pass as you enter the Food Lion, maybe it's Feed My Sheep, maybe it's not. Maybe it's teaching Sunday School, maybe it's giving a kid a hug or a smile, maybe it's sending a card, maybe it's creating your own program that is you, maybe it's huge, maybe it's small, maybe it's international, global, maybe its within  your own family. All shapes and sizes, all are important, all can fill you with the fire if you are thankful for the existence you have been given.
I'm not sure if this is the only way to keep a fire going. I know that God can do all things, and that means all is possible. But faith, call, and gratitude, can sure open lives up to becoming Spirit led. That holy breath, that fire can fill us, and will sustain us, holding our light out for all the world to see, a great beacon of light, a candle of hope, that can transform a cynical world of darkness, for darkness flees from the light, having no power whatsoever. Thanks be to God, Amen.  

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Mt 5:13-16). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[2]Merriam-Webster, I. (2003). Merriam-Webster's collegiate dictionary. Includes index. (Eleventh ed.). Springfield, Mass.: Merriam-Webster, Inc.

Sunday, July 22, 2012


A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
July 22, 2012
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Romans 12:10b
Matthew 5: 33-37 

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.

This week we continue with our Marks of a True Christian passage from Romans chapter 12. I'd to take a minute to look back at where we've been the last few weeks, starting in Romans chapter 12:9 with:  

9 Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection;  

And then this week we get to the next part of verse 10:  

"Outdo one another in showing honor.[1]"

I chose our complimentary Gospel passage to try to get at the honor part of that phrase, this from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5: 33-37, Jesus preaching about making Oaths:

33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ 34 But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.[2]
I had some difficulty finding New Testament passage to tie to "outdo one another in showing honor", that would really get at what Honor is. When I think of honor I think of telling the truth. I think of not lying, not cheating, and not stealing, probably because I went to Hampden-Sydney College, a school where the Honor Code is the cornerstone of the teaching of the school. The Honor Code which is as old as the school states:

As a man of honor, I will not lie, cheat, or steal, nor will I tolerate any breach of the honor code by others.   

Every school where I've taught also has a strict honor system. It is a central piece in private school education, but it is interesting how few times honor, in terms of telling the truth, being truthful,  is addressed in the New Testament. This morning's passage on oaths is the closest I could find. It is almost as if honesty is taken as a given. It is as if "thou shalt not bear false witness" is good enough to cover both the Old and the New Testament. As if a basic pillar of being a follower of God is being honest.
I've never specifically thought about it, nor attributed it to The Bible, but my view of honor is very similar to what Jesus is saying here about oaths. I brought up the honor code at Hampden-Sydney, but there is also one at Blue Ridge. Many teachers have the students write a pledge on their tests, pledging:
On my honor, I have neither given nor received any aid on this work, nor am I aware of any breach of the honor code that I shall not immediately report.  

I've never felt that pledging was necessary because the name being on the top of the page should be enough. Anything pledge else is extra. Jesus says, only say "yes, yes, or no, no." That should be enough. I think of Romeo, swearing his love to Juliet by the Moon, and she says, "Swear not by the moon, but if your love is true, show up tomorrow." Your word alone, sufficient, without any extra platitudes, your word alone, and then showing up. That's honor, but how do you "outdo" anybody in that? What is more truthful than the truth? How do you tell more truth than someone else, when truth itself is an absolute? It either is truth or it isn't. Withholding any piece of the truth would not be honorable, so there really aren't degrees. Without degrees how can someone outdo another? There, like usual, must be more to the words than is immediately apparent. There must be another understanding that I'm missing.
The word that Paul uses that is translated in the NRSV as Honor is "Time" (tee-may), which has a broader meaning than simply the honor as I have known it and have described so far this morning. It can also mean value. Sometimes it refers to the amount of payment that is given in exchange for something of value. Many people check the Wall Street Journal for their stocks "Time" to see how much money their investments have earned. I prefer to think about it like some of my baseball cards because my portfolio at this point is much more adolescent. I have this one Ken Griffey Jr. Rookie card that has a "time" of $100. It's "time" has gone up and down throughout the years, mostly based on Griffey's play. Value, worth, there is a connection to honor I think.
Another feature of the word that can add to our understanding is when it is used other places within the New Testament. This word "Time" is used when Jesus is not respected as a prophet upon his return home to Nazareth. It says “Prophets are not without honor except in their own country and in their own house." In other words he wasn't respected, seen as good, valuable, credible, by any of the people, who supposedly knew him best. The slang term from today that best gets at the meaning of "time" for me is "cred." Cred goes so much beyond just honesty, but into dependability, accountability, accomplishment, it also has to do with being authentic and legit. It gets into the worth and value of a human being. Real value and real worth, but what determines a person's real worth? What is real human cred? Whatever it is that is what we are called as Christians to outdo one another in here in this passage.
Let's look at some of the things that our world recognizes as giving cred to someone. I already mentioned how the value of my baseball card was connected to Ken Griffey's performance, so value then is attributed to it. To that, hitting a baseball 3 times in 10, and every once in awhile hitting it over 350 feet. Doing that earns cred. Millions and Millions of dollars of cred. Also throwing a ball into an iron hoop, or throwing it 60 yards to a waiting receiver who also gets cred for catching that ball. Cred is given to actors, people who pretend to be someone else on stage or screen telling stories. Cred is given to those who are popular or powerful enough to run for office. Cred is given to those who are good looking, or in shape, or wealthy, or strong, or in some cases young, in some cases being older has more cred. Sometimes cred is given and then taken away, and then given back. People in our culture gain cred so quickly and then lose it so quickly, mostly because I think we give it too cheaply. Our standards for cred are cheap if they are so small as hitting a ball, or being good looking enough for everything else not to matter. Our standards for cred are cheap because they are based on public opinion rather than reality. Whatever the most people think is of value is given value, and there is nothing more fickle than public opinion because there is nothing more misinformed than public opinion, especially in our world of publicists where image is everything.
The biggest problem about cred being cheap is that the real goes unrecognized. Real cred is lost in the shuffle.  There is no award show for honor. There is no hall of fame for being dependable. Most times those truly having cred go unnoticed by the majority of the world, but are not forgotten by the lives that they've touched directly. There is no competition for being authentic and true, but who would you rather build the world upon? Who would  you rather have solving the world's problems? Who would you rather have next to you as you go through life. We don't typically compete in the categories  of honor with one another, but this is what we are called to do in this passage. To outdo one another with our true cred. Imagine the world that creates. . . .
In the Old Testament Lesson, we saw the rise of Joseph, a good man, who was tried and tested by much misfortune in his life. He perseveres and actually gets rewarded for his faithfulness. Joseph's story is inspiring but it is not the norm. His being rewarded is not even close to the standard for the way our world operates. Our world is more like the world of Daniel, where honor leads to the fire, or being put in the lion's den. Usually those who are the best among us are not given accolades.
It is here where I've heard a lot of preachers or other leaders begin their tirade, complaining about the way the world is. Start to say that things aren't fair, that there should be rewards for being good people. That we should honor those who sacrifice more. That those who give of themselves, and are self sacrificing should be rewarded. That things should be more fair. That if we gave rewards for honor, more people would be honorable. Possibly, more people would, but honor cannot be about rewards because rewards are fleeting. The truly honorable person is there through the hard times, where rewards are so far from actuality. The rewards for honor if they do exist are many times masked and shrouded in pain. Honor is not about what material gain you can get. It is not about what we hope to receive, but what you have to give. Honor, true cred, "time" is not about the value that is given to  you, but about the value that you add to the world, and that value often goes unnoticed, uncelebrated, and unrewarded because it's not flashy.
Being a Christian is trying our best to walk in the steps of Christ. The term Christian means little Christ. . . The marks of a Christian then are not riches, are not accolades, are not awards, but instead is a cross, and wounds where the nails had been. There is a song by Gillian Welch, called "Where the Nails have Been," where she sings, "I'll know my savior, by the marks where the nails have been."
The prayer of preparation in your bulletin for this morning comes from an anonymous writing entitled, "One Solitary Life." Let's take a look at that now.

"He was born in an obscure village, the child of a peasant woman. He worked in a carpentry shop until he was thirty, and then for three years he was an itinerant preacher.

When the tide of popular opinion turned against him, his friends ran away. He was turned over to his enemies. He was tried and convicted. He was nailed upon a cross between two thieves. When he was dead, he was laid in a borrowed grave.

He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never owned a home. He never went to college. He never traveled more than two hundred miles from the place where he was born. He never did one of the things that usually accompanies greatness.

Yet all the armies that ever marched, and all the governments that ever sat, and all the kings that ever reigned, have not affected life upon this earth as powerfully as that One Solitary Life." ~ Author Unknown

He had the utmost honor, and the world, though it didn't at the time, recognized his true cred, but he was rewarded in this world with a cross, abandoned, and alone. At the very low point of life, he still was faithful to God, and was still faithful to us.
I quoted Romeo and Juliet earlier, saying swear not by the moon, but show up tomorrow. Prove yourself faithful. This honor is a positive statement, more than just not lying, cheating, or stealing, but being that person who people know they can depend on no matter what, and compete with each other as to who can be that best at simply being there, always. I know that this is something that I struggle with, but maybe that is why we are to try and out do one another and compete. Maybe we all need a pace car driving us forward to be more honorable, more resolved, and more dependable. We sing, on Christ the Solid Rock I Stand, all other ground is sinking sand, all other ground is sinking stand. Yes. May we aspire to be like that rock, for there is enough sinking sand in this world, and very few rocks.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Ro 12:9-10). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[2]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Mt 5:33-37). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Sunday, July 15, 2012


A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
July  13, 2012
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Romans 12:10a
John 7: 1-9 

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.

We continue our study of the "Marks of a Christian Passage from Romans 12:9-21. We've made it to the second verse, which is "love one another with mutual affection," according to the NRSV. Then I chose the Gospel reading from John 7:1-9, I believe the connection though not apparent right off the bat will be obvious in a minute.  

After this Jesus went about in Galilee. He did not wish to go about in Judea because the Jews were looking for an opportunity to kill him. 2 Now the Jewish festival of Booths was near. 3 So his brothers said to him, “Leave here and go to Judea so that your disciples also may see the works you are doing; 4 for no one who wants to be widely known acts in secret. If you do these things, show yourself to the world.” 5 (For not even his brothers believed in him.) 6 Jesus said to them, “My time has not yet come, but your time is always here. 7 The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify against it that its works are evil. 8 Go to the festival yourselves. I am not going to this festival, for my time has not yet fully come.” 9 After saying this, he remained in Galilee.
In order to get all of us on the same page about our brief passage, we've got to take a look at the words, themselves, and the choices that translators are apt to take. This text, which the NRSV marked, "Love one another with mutual affection" is quite varied in the choices that translators make for it. Here are a few:

KJV: " Be kindly affectioned one to another with brotherly love"
NIV: "Be devoted to one another in brotherly love "
NLT: "Love each other with genuine affection"
ASV: In love of the brethren be tenderly affectioned one to another;
The Message: Be good friends who love deeply
The New Century Bible: Love each other like brothers and sisters  

You can see from all these different translations there are a lot of words used, you'd expect a lot of words in the original language too, then wouldn't you, but there are only three. This passage is merely three words, though it is translated out to many more than that when converted to English. The Greek though is just three words: Philostorgoi allathus Philadelphia. The Allathus is "one another" and then the other two are compound words that pretty much are saying the same type of thing. They both share the same root Philo, which means love, it means love for us too in words like Philanthropy (the love of humanity) and Philosophy (The love of wisdom. So then you have two different words compounded with the Philo (love), and that is Storgoi - which is another word for love in the Greek language, so it's almost like saying "love" "love." We translate both of these words as love, and here they are put together. Storgoi is usually translated as the type of love that is natural, like between a parent and child, or vice versa, or between other close familial relationships, like between siblings. This is what is really interesting because then it is paired in the sentence with another word "Philadelphia" which means, love of a brother, or brotherly love.
I used to wonder why they called Philadelphia, "The City of Brotherly Love" because if you've ever watched a sporting event played in Philly, whether the Phillies, or the Eagles, or the Flyers, the fans would be brutal. They'd boo anybody. Opposing players had no chance, even their own players would get booed when slumping. It could even be a star, I saw big name get booed, from Mike Schmidt to Donovan McNabb. There is something about the fans in Philadelphia that are worse than other cities. The Eagles played one time on Christmas Day, and I was watching, and at halftime Santa Claus came out and they booed him. That may be the lowest of the low. Booing Santa Claus. It wasn't until much later I realized it was because the name. Phil- love and adelphos- brother.
So in our passage for this morning we have literally: love like natural family love, one another, with the love you'd have for a brother. It seems kinda redundant. You can see why the translations are so wordy and diverse. Ok great, but how are brothers supposed to love each other? What is brotherly love? What does it look like?
To answer that question we could look to The Bible. It would seem like for Presbyterians that would be a good place to start. So I did this week. I tried to think of instances in the Bible where brothers acted towards each other in a loving fashion, you know as an example we could use for modeling our own brotherly love, but the problem is there aren't any good ones. Biblical Brothers do not have a good track record.
The first pair, Cain and Abel, to say the least they have their problems. Cain gets envious of Abel and smashes his skull with a rock. Brotherly Love?
The next set of brothers, Jacob and Esau. Jacob tricks Esau out of his birth right, out of his father's blessing, and more, then flees living in fear of his brother's anger. Is this Brotherly love?
Then Joseph's brothers in our Old Testament lesson for today, get so envious of Joseph and their father's favor, and resentful of Joseph's arrogance that they want to leave him for dead but then decide finally to sell him into slavery. Brotherly Love?
What about New Testament Brothers? In our Gospel passage we see Jesus' brothers, not believing in him, and trying to get him to go do his acts in public, which could certainly get him killed, since he has already turned the scribes and pharisees against him. Jesus's brothers, the ones closest to him do not act as they should. Brotherly Love?
Then again in the Prodigal Son parable,  we get another example of  brotherly love, when the prodigal is welcomed home and the fatted calf is slain, the elder brother refuses to come into the party. He is overwhelmed with rage, anger, and envy and cannot be a part of the joy. Again Brotherly Love? Maybe those booers in Philadelphia have it right. Brotherly love is a troubling concept.
Another popular understanding of what brotherly love is all about is the idea of being a brother's keeper. Does loving according to Brotherly Love mean that we are to be our Brother's Keeper? I don't feel that the The Cain and Abel story, from where that famous phrase comes points us in that direction, but yet we misquote it as such all the time.
It is one of the big tenets of the Blue Ridge School Code of Conflict. It says, "At all times be your brother's keeper." I've always had problems with this, at least its use at the school. It seems like we use it as a way to try to get the boys to police one another, to get them to try to keep each other out of trouble. But sometimes trouble itself is the best thing for a person. As the head of the discipline committee this past year, I saw a lot of boys, who made poor decisions. I would say that those boys grew more from those poor decisions than they ever would have if they were kept safe from them. Sure it may have been the easier road, but the easier road is not always the most healthy. How often do we do this with people we are close with. We love them by protecting them, or keeping them, calling it brotherly love, or brother's keeper, but I really think it falls short or even goes against what we are called to do.
Another of my favorite movies is the Disney Pixar film "Finding Nemo." When it first came out I actually saw it in the theater three times. I was working with my uncle at a summer marine science program, and each week there was always one rainy day, and we'd go again. The movie is such a classic, but one line in it always comes up when I'm thinking about the idea of brother's keeper. If you are not familiar with the movie, there is a clown fish who builds a home for his wife and him at the drop off, which is dangerous but has a wonderful view. They have a bunch of eggs, but before the eggs hatch a shark comes and ruins their plans. The wife dies and all the eggs except one are lost. The father pledges to never let anything happen to his little son, who turns out to be Nemo. He becomes an over protective father, and Nemo rebels, and accidentally gets taken by a diver and put in a tank. The movie is then centered on Nemo's dad battling the ocean to save his poor son. He runs into a fish named Dorry who befriends him and tries to help, but she has a special ailment. She has not long term memory, so she is kind of a mess, but helps in her own way. She actually, like a Shakespearean fool character, despite her flaws speaks great wisdom. Marlin, Nemo's father, at one point has reached a point where he has all but given up, and he is talking to himself, and repeats his vow, saying, "I promised I'd never let anything happen to him." To this Dorry replies in her typical flighty wisdom, saying, "That seems to be a funny thing to promise, because if you don't let anything happen to him, then nothing will ever happen to him, not much fun for little Harpo." Dorry repeatedly gets Nemo's name wrong. But that's it. How often do we seek to keep people safe from harm in the name of Brotherly love?  It can be harmful.
I don't have a brother, but I am a brother. One thing I find from observing others with brothers is that there seems to be a bond there that even the biggest of fights do not sever completely. Maybe that is the big important piece of the equation, forgiveness. Because there seems like there will be fights, and envy, and jealousy, and jockeying for position, and harsh words, and discord, and division, and rivalry, and over controlling and over protecting in all human relationships, no matter what, but if we are "loving according to brotherly love, we can get past all of that and forgive, no matter what." There is a bond between us that just isn't broken, no matter what occurs. We don't love our brothers despite their faults, we love them through them.
The Joseph story is the only one example that offers that type of reconciliation. When Joseph has his brothers in his hand, he chooses to forgive rather than harm them, and when reading that story our hearts are warmed because it seems we know that it's right to forgive our brothers and wrong to envy them. We feel shame when we wrong our brothers, don't we. There seems to be something in us that knows that loving our brothers is right, and not doing so is somehow unnatural and wrong.
One of my favorite linguistic features of that Joseph story happens in the beginning when it says that Joseph's brothers were so upset with him that they could not speak shalom to him. Literally they could not speak peace, or wholeness, in other words the relationship was broken, leading to their mistreatment and selling of their brother. Maybe this gets us a little closer to what brotherly love is supposed to be, by seeing what it is when it falls apart. Shalom, or peace, in the Hebrew culture was a word that meant so much, it had to do with health and perfection and things being as they are supposed to be, as created by God. Breaking Shalom is setting things deeply out of order. When we do not love our brothers we set things out of order. We break the natural created order of the world. We sin, and the world suffers for it.
This is an important mark of a Christian, to love with brotherly love, knowing that with God as our Father, that makes Jesus our brother, too, and though we did not know what we were doing, Jesus forgave us, and asked for the father to do the same, "Father forgive them they know not what they do." Jesus did not keep us from sinning, but sacrificed himself to save us from our sin, he did not keep us from it, but loved us through it, restoring, reconciling, relationship. It seems to me that that is the true mark of brotherly love, seeking to forgive, to restore, to reconcile our relationships with our brothers and sisters. May we all be blessed with such distinction. Amen.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Jn 7:1-9). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Sunday, July 1, 2012


A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
July 1, 2012
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Romans 12:9c
Luke 6:43-49

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.

This morning we continue our study of "The Marks of a Christian" from Paul's letter to the Romans chapter 12, and we finish out the third part of verse 9, which reads: "Let love be genuine, hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good." Two weeks ago we looked at how love is genuine, last week we looked deeper into the face of what evil is, and today we try to get at what is this thing called good to which we must cling. I chose a passage from Luke's gospel to help us get at this text. Luke 6:43-49. It is all about Fruits and Foundations. . .

43 “No good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit; 44 for each tree is known by its own fruit. Figs are not gathered from thorns, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. 45 The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks.
46 “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you? 47 I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them. 48 That one is like a man building a house, who dug deeply and laid the foundation on rock; when a flood arose, the river burst against that house but could not shake it, because it had been well built. 49 But the one who hears and does not act is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the river burst against it, immediately it fell, and great was the ruin of that house.”
Last week while I was talking about evil I led us to a point where hating what is evil could be dangerous because in many ways hate, being the antithesis of love, can lead us down a very dark path, the path where we become the very thing we were hating. There seems to be a great human tendency to turn good things into bad ones, pure things into corrupt ones, great ventures into failures, ideals into stark realities, the list goes on. I will pose today that much of that is because we find it easy to hate what is evil because it is obvious to us, but we somehow do not know how to cling to the good, perhaps we do not know what is good, or perhaps we don't know how to cling, or maybe we just find that we feel that hating evil is enough, but Paul does not pair these two ideas together lightly. There seems to be a real strong connection between Love being genuine, hating what is evil, and forever clinging to what is good. Why is it so important to cling?
This week contains the 4th of July, Independence Day, a day where the world changed because an idea came into reality. The Declaration of Independence stated boldly that human beings are given certain natural rights by God, and that the role of the government is to protect those rights for the people. It was truly Revolutionary, major change occurred. The declaration concludes with the line, "And for support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the Protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor." And then they sign. John Hancock, nice and big. And the war that had begun the year earlier continues, and then at the end a Constitution is established and the United States of America is born into the world. We call this the American Revolution, but it is very different from other major revolutions in the world.
Two of histories other major Revolutions are very different. In the French Revolution you have turmoil for many years. Power changes hands, mobs rule, heads roll, fear, revenge, divisive politics, lawlessness prevails, and finally the great hand of repression comes in the person of Napoleon, and order is established, but the freedom, the vision of equality, fraternity, and liberty is lost, the idealism is destroyed by the guillotine's blade, and the people who rose up to fight are once again under the foot of the powerful. The winds of change rise, but no real lasting change takes place. France goes through one hundred years of revolutions and changing governments. The Russian Revolution follows a very similar path. There is a real cry for change, and a legitimate uprising occurs, but those ideals quickly are lost when those who are fighting against injustice come to power and begin to commit atrocities to make sure that their side and their vision is safely, effectively, and completely established. You are left with the U.S.S.R., repressive, again political murder prevails, Totalitarian government, KGB, secret police, Siberian prisons and Gulags.
What is the difference? Why do these two revolutions take such different turns from the American one. You can't say time is the factor because the French Revolution begins only 22 years after the Declaration of Independence came to be and only 10 years after the Constitution was ratified. What is the difference? I believe a big difference is that the revolutionaries in France and Russian did start off by hating what is evil, but they did not cling to what is good, but let me illustrate again what I think happened in the French and Russian Revolutions, and truthfully has happened in many others. I wrote this poem a number of years ago, called Progress and Progressive. . . It gets into what can happen in the court of human revolutionary politics.

Progress is not as loathsome as progressive,
Just as active pales in comparison to activist.
When a movement organizes the mob,
Watch Out! Change is gonna come child.
The pendulum will swing the guillotine’s blade,
Removing all obstacles in the path,
But the momentum grows and loses direction
And discretion, then desecration and destruction
Follow, replacing oppression with oppression,
Power with power, corruption with corruption
Human authority with human authority,
And God, who inspired the first steps,
Justice, which pointed out the inherent evils,
Love, which catalyzed the necessity,
Are lost when the blade sweeps side to side
Again and again, throughout human history. 

This is what seems to always happen. We hate injustice, we hate inequality, we hate oppression, we hate the way the powerful are corrupt, we hate the way the world is unfair, we hate the way that people are marginalized, we hate how children across the world are starving, we hate the way our money is spent on wars, we hate how our educational systems are in decline, we hate how money is being wasted, we hate that taxes are going up, that inflation is going up, that the debt is going up, we hate, we hate, we hate. We hate these things but then these things turn into other people, the other side, our opponents, and then we hate them, and we are lost, and God forbid you give power to that hate because then we've all lost, hate goes into action and all of the good intentions of hating injustice are lost, and lost forever, and the guillotine sweeps side to side, again and again and again and again. Because it seems that all we do is hate what is evil, we don't also cling to what is good.
But in many ways the American Revolution is different because the Founding Fathers didn't just hate the injustices that they saw, but they also had ideals and they bound together based on those principles and relied on Divine Providence. In other words they held on to God, the author of all things good, and to each other as neighbors. If you look at the language of the Declaration of Independence you see it throughout, from "Laws of Nature and Nature's God", "all men are created equal," "endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights." These lines are familiar to us for sure, but look at the world view that they reflect. It is a worldview that very much relies and sees a world filled with truths, self evident truths as well, and a creator who has put these truths in place. There is Rootedness. There is foundation. There are seeds firmly planted. Very different from the French and the Russian Revolutions, which were secular. In France and Russia the Christian Church, be it Catholic or Orthodox was so deeply in bed with the government that their overthrow needed to coincide, so in both, France and Russia, Christian values, belief in God, Providence, Creation, were all thrown aside or forgotten, but along with those beliefs, was lost the very essence of humanity, the kindness, the love, the hope, the value of one single human life, all were lost as well. You can see it's true in the ways that killing undesirables became commonplace and systematic, even innovative.
The American Revolution is different. Sure there is war and fighting, but there aren't killing fields. There are heated debates, and vitriolic language fuel them, but not guillotines. There are changes of power, but no military coups. Hating what is evil is not enough, you must also cling, hold fast, grasp as if your life depended on it the good because as we've seen hating, even if it is hating evil, can suck us in. Honestly we see it around us even today. Last week I talked about how our War Against Terrorism is a challenge that tests our clinging to the good because it is so easy to hate terror that we face losing ourselves in the process, as we create and perfect drones, paired with "hitlists," paired with celebrations of kills. Somehow we must hold fast to the good. And at home we see noble pursuits, such as the providing of healthcare for all, paired with corruption, lies, misleading word games, and under the table behind closed doors deals, treating people as statistics and groups rather than individuals. It looks an awful lot like us versus them politics, and we've seen where that leads. . . Chop! There it swings again!
No we've got to cling to what is good! I worked with a Youth Director who always repeated the phrase, "God is Good" to which the Youth would rightly reply, "All the Time." Yes God is good. Can we cling to God, can we cling to Jesus through it all. We must or we are in trouble, because. . . Chop! There it goes again. Clinging to God, being on God's side means that we don't take sides because God made all of us. We realize that person standing on the other side of the fence, or the other side of the aisle, or the other side of the ocean, or the column on the ballot, or whatever, is also a child of God, cling to that, hold fast to that idea.
During our Lenten study we looked at the play Les Miserables in which there are these revolutionaries who are fighting, idealistically for their cause, but in the course of the events they lose focus on what it is all about, and they fail miserably, and nothing changes, but their end is foreshadowed in the words that they sing: "Who cares about your lonely soul, we strive towards a larger goal, our little lives don't count at all." Yes they do! Yes they absolutely do! And so do the lives of those you fight against! There they are hating what is evil, but have lost grip on what is good. It is not until after they are in the midst of the battle, they sing another song, "Drink With Me to Days Gone By" in which they remember the good times, their friendships, the wonders of what is life, the gifts of God that we need to hold on to with our very lives because they include yes our very lives. A suicide bomber by definition has lost sight of what is good, while he seeks to destroy what he sees as evil.
Of course we say, no I'd never be a suicide bomber, I'd never send someone to the guillotine, I'd never. . . but is that because you prefer what is good, or is it because you don't hate evil enough? It's a good question, I think. It is one of those delicate balancing acts that makes being a Christian so difficult, impossible really, without God that is, without Christ that is, without the workings of the Holy Spirit. Yes truly impossible. But let's look at the gospel passage anew: “No good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit; for each tree is known by its own fruit" There it is, cling to what is good, if you are a good tree you will bear good fruit. What makes a tree good, it is rooted. Likewise: "The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil" the heart will be and produce that which it clings to. Next Jesus goes further talking about how important the foundation is.

46 “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you? 47 I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them. 48 That one is like a man building a house, who dug deeply and laid the foundation on rock; when a flood arose, the river burst against that house but could not shake it, because it had been well built. 49 But the one who hears and does not act is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the river burst against it, immediately it fell, and great was the ruin of that house.”  

The wise man built his house upon the rock and the rains came tumbling down. Clinging to the good is building on good foundation, with good soil, good nourishment, and good fruit is produced, likewise evil produces ruin, or as Coralee likes to sing, "the rains came down and the floods came up and the house on the sand went "Splat" or was it swing. . . Chop! The Psalms are filled with this same language, in Psalm 34, read this morning, verse 10: "The young lions suffer want and hunger, but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing."[2] Seek the Lord, lack no good thing. Psalm 1 as well:

1     Happy are those
who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
or sit in the seat of scoffers;
2     but their delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law they meditate day and night.
3     They are like trees
planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper.[3]

If we cling to the good, cling to God there is good fruit within us, each of us, and we will prosper, and we will be able to hate evil without succumbing to evil. If we cling to good, cling to God, we can truly band together in a trusting community, as the founding fathers in declaration said we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.". If we cling to good, cling to God, the evil that we hate stands no chance. Only this clinging can stop the human pattern that we are caught up in only this can stop the swinging blade before it again swings and chops. Let us dull the blade, let us cut the rope, let us cling to the good, hate what is evil and love genuinely, both God and our neighbor,

"No storm can shake my inmost calm,
While to that rock I'm clinging.
Since love is lord of heaven and earth
How can I keep from singing?"

We can't keep from singing, when clinging to the Rock, to the Good, to God, to Christ, and what better fruit is their than the beautiful harmonies of song? Please God may it be so! Amen.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Lk 6:43-49). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[2]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Ps 34:10). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[3]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Ps 1:1-3). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.