Monday, August 27, 2012

Where Do You Look?

Where Do You Look?
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
August 26, 2012
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Romans 12:12c
Luke 11: 5-13

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.

I talked last week about suffering, and abiding, and how important it is and how we find God often in the midst of our biggest struggles, in many ways that is the what, and in many ways you could say that this week deals with the how because this week's aspect of the marks of a Christian is "Persevere in Prayer" Romans 12:12c. Let's take a look back at where we've come in our marks of a Christian journey.

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. 11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.e 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering,  

And now this week, "persevere in prayer." I chose to compliment this with a famous passage of Jesus, teaching about prayer from Luke 11: 5-13:

5 And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; 6 for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ 7 And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ 8 I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.
9 “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 10 For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 11 Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? 12 Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? 13 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” [1]  

Perseverance is one of those virtues that human beings hold highest because of how important it is. Characters throughout literature have embodied this important virtue inspiring readers for centuries, ever since Homer's Odyssey, we have seen characters face trials, beating the odds, and growing in attributes; modern video games are built on this premise, where the character fights, survives, and grows stronger as the player makes his way through the game. Our lives are the same. We face trials, and the persevering souls become heroes in our world. Perseverance is important because we want to be surrounded by those we can count on no matter what. We want to be those people who people count on. A place of honor is set for those who in life overcome the odds to be more than they are and do more than anyone could ever have imagined possible. To persevere is the opposite of quitting, no matter how hard it gets, no matter how steep the climb, no matter how much the rain falls, or how hot the sun burns, or how lonely it gets, abandoned by everyone, abandoned by friends, left alone to make it on your own, each step, step by step, inch by inch, against it all, impossible, can't be done, you must be crazy, are you kidding, what are you thinking, you can't, you can't, hello, you just can't, you are simply kidding yourself, or sometimes people start telling you it's ok if you fail, don't worry about it, it was just too hard, it's fine, it's not that important anyway, no one could do it, you did your best, it was just too hard. But to persevere means you put all of that away and you do, you strive, you compete all the way until the finish.
There are two ways to think about what our passage for this morning is saying, in its description of the true Christian, and I think it is valuable either way, so I want to look at both. The first way to look at is that we “persevere in prayer,” meaning we continue to pray no matter what. The other way to think about it is that we are supposed to “persevere in prayer,” meaning, that we actually can only persevere by and through praying. Let's take both of these in turn because they are both important, both give us insight, and honestly are related, and simply the opposite sides of the same coin, as we will hopefully see in a moment. I would like to use the Gospel reading to get at the first, and the Old Testament reading to get at the other.
So look at this gospel reading, it talks about persistence in prayer, suggesting that prayer is a process that should be repeated, much like the shampoo instructions say, lather, rinse, repeat, though I don't think I've ever repeated with shampoo, but have I in prayer, either? I wonder about that, have I ever prayed, and prayed, and prayed for or about something? Perseverance is an interesting word to describe prayer, because prayer seems so passive. I mean we typically do it kneeling, or sitting, or many cases even lying down. Especially our personal prayer time is like that, but no we are to persevere. How hard can that be? When I stop and think about there are a lot of things that I would choose prayer over if given the choice, at least I think I would, but then why don't I Why? Is it because I don't think prayer will have a difference? It is an interesting thing to think about.
It brings to mind Huck Finn and his fish hooks. Huck is told that he can pray for anything he wants and he'll get it, so he prays for fish hooks and they don't magically appear, so he gives up, saying, "that's why I put no stock in prayer." I wonder how long he persevered in prayer though. I get the feeling that he prayed, kinda like this:

Dear God, you don't know me, I've never been much a nobody, but Miss Watson, she done told me that if I'd up and prayed, that you would come through, so I really need some fish hooks, do you think you could spare some? I'd be mighty grateful. Thanks, your friend Huck. Amen.  

Now I've never been one to judge and condemn someone else's prayers, because I know that it's not about the words, and not about the length, but I'm not sure you could call this prayer persistent. And I wonder how much faith was there before hand, especially since when the fish hooks don't appear, Huck's not shocked, but rather, relieved, vindicated, and therefore freed from all that hypocrisy and book learnin' Miss Watson was forcing on him. Miss Watson tries to tell Huck he's foolish, that you are supposed to pray for spiritual gifts and such, but look at Jesus' metaphor. He talks about bread, the need for bread, not because the person is starving, but because he's got a guest he needs to feed, he says bang on the door, keep banging on the door, and eventually the friend will come to your aid.
Now let's look at that. Have you ever needed to borrow something? Who do you go to? Who? Yeah you go to the friend first who you think will help you. You go to the most likely of candidates, the friend you have faith in, the one you’re sure has the bread, is home, and will give you some. That's it. . . Where do you go? And where do you go often? When we are in our greatest need, when we are suffering, when we have nowhere else to turn, do we go to God because we know he is the friend who will deliver? The friend who is home, has what we need, and will give it, Or not? Think about this. You bang on the door, the friend isn't home. How long do you keep banging? Eventually after not too much time passes you get tired of banging, and you leave, probably sooner rather than later, being embarrassed a bit by your desperation, embarrassed by being so far out on a limb. Now God is always home, and Jesus seems to be saying that you should stand there and keep on banging on the door. Again and again, that's faith, and that's persevering in prayer.
And that brings us to the second way to look at this, that prayer allows us to persevere. Last week we took a look at suffering. We looked at how Paul is suggesting that the true Christian does not avoid suffering, but seeks out suffering and abides with those who suffer. And we looked at how that idea just doesn't sell in our culture. Human beings do not like to suffer, and tend to avoid suffering at all cost. Now though this week, we look at how perseverance is key and that strength to persevere is found in prayer. Our Old Testament Lesson, the story of Elijah comes to mind. Now Elijah has ticked off the queen, queen Jezebel, a name synonymous in the history of the world with villainy and evil. Elijah has killed a bunch of Jezebels priests and prophets, and now Jezebel has vowed revenge, and you can imagine it is never good to have the queen mad at you, especially one as vindictive as Jezebel, so Elijah flees and prays, speaking to God awaiting God's message to him. The angel tells him,

11 He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; 12 and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. 13[2]  

How often in our prayer do we expect God to come to us loud and effective, like a wind splitting mountains and breaking rocks? How often do we expect God to come in an Earthquake, or God in a fire? Huck wanted God to come in some fishhooks. I've wanted God to come in major ways, visible ways, ways of my choosing, but many times instead God comes in a still small voice, and sometimes the way that God comes is not at all what you expected, but something all so much more full. Perhaps Elijah wanted to be taken out of the situation. Perhaps Elijah wanted Jezebel killed, or at least rendered powerless, so that Elijah could once again be safe. Perhaps Elijah wanted a bunch of different things. But what Elijah got was just what he needed. The strength and the gift of companionship to allow him to persevere through the situation he was in.
I'm not sure if you've noticed, but in the Joys and Concerns I rarely ask for God to remove pain from people, I rarely ask for God to cure disease, I rarely ask for God to take away suffering, instead I ask for God's presence to bring strength to those we pray for. Some may think that I do this because I don't think God has the power to heal, but it’s not that; I do certainly know God does. It might be that people think I don't think God does those types of healings anymore, no I believe in that, too. I do it because the value and presence of God in our lives and the lives of others is more valuable than healing, more valuable than being outside of suffering. The presence of God in our lives is life, and if it takes suffering for us to feel that strength, that hope, that sense of redemption, and love, and compassion, and reconciliation, then great, amen, hallelujah. May we all be given that strength, may we all be given that hope. Pray, grow your relationship with God, constantly, daily. Dedicate time, action, devotion to building up relation to God.
One of the things I think is cool about Celtic Christianity is that they saw life and work as prayer, and their music and their words they would repeat and memorize and it would fill their days as they worked. No matter the activity they had a prayer that went with it, so that the work itself could be dedicated in prayer. Have you ever prayed through a day of work, persevering in prayer in that way? Imagine what the day would be like, you may just get those fish hooks after all. Pray, pray, pray without ceasing. I want to close this morning with one of those Celtic prayers. This one was for prayer while reaping:

God, bless Thou Thyself my reaping
Each ridge, and plain, and field,
Each sickle curved, shapely, hard,
Each ear and handful in the sheaf,
      Each ear and handful in the sheaf.
Bless each maiden and youth,
Each woman and tender youngling,
Safeguard them beneath They shield of strength,
And guard them in the house of the saints,
      Guard them in the house of the saints.

 Encompass each goat, sheep, and lamb,
Each cow and horse and store,
Surround the flocks and herds,
And tend them to a kindly fold,
      Tend them to a kindly fold.
For the sake of Michael head of hosts,
Of Mary fair-skinned branch of grace,
Of bride smooth-white of ringleted locks,
Of Columba of the grave and tombs,
      Columba of the graves and tombs.
It's interesting to see how fast the prayer goes away from the person and their work to the other. Imagine how much faster and more effective that makes the work. Imagine how much of a difference that makes for the other. Someone just may get some fishhooks afterall.
Go forth and pray, pray, pray, pray without ceasing, and only when necessary use the words. Amen.

e Other ancient authorities read serve the opportune time
[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Lk 11:5-13). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[2]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (1 Ki 19:11-13). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Christian Abides

The Christian Abides
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
August 19, 2012
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Romans 12:12b
1 Peter 4: 12-19 

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.

As we continue our study through the marks of a true Christian after having a look at hope last week, this week we look into a topic that to many of us seems as far away from hope as possible, and that is suffering. This week's passage is "Be patient in suffering" according the New Revised Standard Bible. "Be Patient in Suffering." Let us also take a look back at the journey we have been on this summer. The Marks of a True Christian. So far we have looked at: "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. 11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.e 12 Rejoice in hope," and now this week: "be patient in suffering." To pair with this, I chose a passage from 1 Peter 4: 12-19, labeled in my Bible, "Suffering as a Christian." 

12 Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed. 14 If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, is resting on you. 15 But let none of you suffer as a murderer, a thief, a criminal, or even as a mischief maker. 16 Yet if any of you suffers as a Christian, do not consider it a disgrace, but glorify God because you bear this name. 17 For the time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God; if it begins with us, what will be the end for those who do not obey the gospel of God? 18 And
“If it is hard for the righteous to be saved,
what will become of the ungodly and the sinners?”
19 Therefore, let those suffering in accordance with God’s will entrust themselves to a faithful creator, while continuing to do good. [1]  

There is one truth that I have found in this our American world, and that is that suffering does not sell. It is not a great lead. You never see advertisements offering up suffering. All State doesn't promise to provide mayhem, it tells you that mayhem is all around you, and if you get their insurance you will be safe in their "Good Hands." MacDonald's doesn't advertise that their food is bad for your health, could cause suffering a heart attack, not your hating it, but instead, "I'm loving it." Pepsi is the choice of a new generation, a cooler generation, not one suffering from diabetes. Suffering just doesn't sell, and here I am today saying that one of the true marks of a Christian is being patient in suffering.
Patience is a funny word too. It was one of the first words that Coralee learned, though the concept still seems to escape her. I remember one time she wanted mom really bad, and DeAnna needed a nap, she'd been dealing with her for long hours and needed a break. I just happened to come home from work, and could give her such a break. So I'm holding Coralee and she is freaking out, and I say to her you need to be patient, and she says back to me, "patient, patient" repeating it trying to convince herself. "Mommy needs a break sweatheart, and  you need to be patient." "Patient," she meekly squeaks out again.
Too often I think we see this as patience in the midst of suffering. As Americans we do not know real suffering, and our entire life is built around protecting ourselves from suffering, and I wonder what that does to us. What does it do to us, to try to block ourselves from suffering? Because this mark of a true Christian doesn't say, avoid suffering at all costs, but when it eventually catches up to you, as it always seems to do, be patient and it will end at some point really soon. For Coralee and her suffering she just needed to chill for 15 minutes or so, so that DeAnna could get some peace, is that being patient in suffering? Is our suffering, suffering, and are we patient when it occurs? I'm not sure about y'all, but  you can look at me and you know that I have never wondered about where my next meal would come from. I've also never really known real persecution for my beliefs, real oppression, real restriction on my life and my choices. So what this passage, "Be patient in suffering" means to me is, don't worry things won't be bad so long. You'll get over it. All things come and go. Pain is temporary, but glory lasts. Football practice begins Friday for me, and DeAnna and the girls have gone to the beach, and I'll be "suffering" through long boring beginning of the year faculty meetings this week. To me that is suffering. Hot temperatures, being a little bit lonely, missing my girls, being a little bit bored. Suffering. So let me be patient in it. Yeah I know I can get through. Just a little bit more, then I can go home and take a nap.
But Paul's audience is different, and his meaning of suffering is different, and his meaning of patience is different. For Christians in the beginning, there was real suffering going on. We know in our world that when trouble happens on a national scale, you know like a economic crisis, that people tend to lose their civility and their sense of humanity, and things get divided, and people get blamed, and often groups of people get blamed. On July 19, 64, the city of Rome burned, the great fire of Rome for which the emperor Nero is famous for playing his violin while the city burned. The problem was he was a little less negligent once the fires were o out and the blame needed to be assigned. Like most politicians at this point they looked around and, to quote Mel Brooks, as the governor in Blazing Saddles, "We've got to protect our phony baloney jobs, Gentleman." The spin must begin, and so it did. The strange small, new sect of Christianity seemed to be a good scapegoat. The Roman historian Tacitus wrote it this way:
As a consequence, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians [or Chrestians[18]] by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but, even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. In accordance, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not as much of the crime of firing the city as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired. 

Could you have patience in that kind of suffering? Would you claim to be a Christian when they came knocking at your house? I have to be honest that I'm not sure what I would do, but this is what Paul is talking about when he mentions suffering.
Our translation in the NRSV seems to down play it, both in the choosing of the word suffering, and the choosing of the word patient as translations. The Greek word here used for suffering has more to do with oppression and persecution than, mere bodily pain. It has more to do with being in the face of hatred, in the face of those who want you dead because of who you are and what you believe. Can we wrap our minds around that 1950 years later in the safety of America, here in Gordonsville? Can we even imagine what it would be live to live under such a hostile government, rather than the ambivalent one we complain often about?  It's a world foreign to us, yet it exists all around us.
So that's suffering, but what about patience. It is interesting that the NRSV committee chose "patience" as the word here because there are many words for patience used in the New Testament. The word is also translated as "resist, standing firm, holding one's ground." That takes on a much more active role than simply being patient, especially when paired with oppression rather than merely suffering. It also can be translated as "abide." Now abide is a word I love, though typically it is a word that is only used in church. How often do you hear about abiding in our world? Abiding means being there in the midst of it all. Being there, with, through thick, through thin, in the heart of it. Going through, seemingly by choice, just to be with a provide comfort. You could leave, but you have chosen to stay, that's abiding. In my church growing up, the church's mission statement was, "We could care less, but we have decided to care more." It seems to me that that is a statement that gets close to the idea of abiding. You could leave, but you have decided to stay. The emperor has literally thrown your neighbor to the dogs, and you could leave, but you have decided to abide with him, through it.
Again that is what Christ does with us. God sees us, sees our plight, and becomes us, becomes one of us, to show us simply, hey I'm here. Don't forget, I'm here. I'll be with you in  your suffering, no matter what, no matter how hard. I'm there. When the storm winds blow, I'm there, when persecution falls I'm there, when disease strips you bare, I'm there. Awesome, truly amazing, but yet we run from suffering. We run from suffering avoiding by any means necessary. Why? Oh yeah it doesn't sell. Perhaps it's just that we are not buying. We are not buying the fact that God's purpose could include suffering for us, what if it does, what if it does simply because we need to be reminded that God is there, that God is there, abiding, and has us in the palm of his hand, right there beside us in all things. This passage is not saying, hey avoid suffering at all costs, but once in bear it, instead it is saying go find suffering, be there in the midst of it, be strengthened by it, find God in it.
Back in 2006 when I was pondering going to seminary, a student of mine passed away. If you look in the bulletin at the Prayer of Preparation, you'll see William Cowper's "Light Shining in Darkness." That poem took new meaning for me in the midst of that suffering. Some months before he died, I had assigned a poetry response essay, and by providence, Jake, the young man, chose to write his paper on "Light Shining in Darkness," this poem. Now at his funeral with his family and friends assembled, I read his essay. You all who know me so well can imagine how difficult that was for me, but what a moment. It was as if from the grave, Jake was abiding with us, showing that even in the midst of the greatest struggle, loss, and suffering, there is light shining in the darkness. There is light in those moments because God is abiding, Christ abides, and that, not suffering is all that truly matters. God give us the strength, and next week we talk about persevering through prayer, prayer, how we realize that God is there with us. May it be so, amen.

e Other ancient authorities read serve the opportune time
[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (1 Pe 4:12-19). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Hope Springs Eternal

Hope Springs Eternal
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
August 12, 2012
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Romans 12:12a
Revelation 19:1-10 

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 morning our line from the "Marks of a true Christian" is simply Romans 12:12a "Rejoice in Hope." And it's cool that it's for this morning because yesterday was a cool day here at church. I thank everyone who was a part of it, and all who came. We had a great time, and if I could have thought back a few months ago when we were first thinking and planning it that it would have gone so well, it would have been more than I had hoped. I mean who gets weather like that in August in Virginia. It's been so hot and so humid for so long, to get a day that was cool with no rain was so much more than I could have asked for. It was great. Thanks you again, everyone really, but hope is an interesting topic, and one that I have taken alot of time thinking about this week. What hope is, whether it's good or not, and whether it is possible to rejoice in it. I chose a passage from Revelation to get at hope, knowing that for some reason it's always a little bit intimidating to preach from Revelation. There is so much stuff in it that sounds a little bit crazy, what with the trumpets and the seals and the numerology, and the dragons, and there are all kinds of different ways that people interpret it and use it, and frankly there is a great history of irresponsible misuse of it. But all in all the message of Revelation is one of hope and witness to that hope, and no other passage in the entirety of the book represents a witness of hope more than this one I am about to read, the Hallelujah scene.
I've heard the president of my seminary preach and lecture on this passage often, and I've enjoyed his take, and that it is a major victory party, celebrating an end to oppression by a people who have been oppressed for a long time. The early Christians, and Jews as well had found themselves in a period where persecution by the Roman Empire had grown fierce, and were looking for things in the world that could give them hope. Ever since the fall of the Kingdom of Israel, the area of Palestine had been controlled by a series of foreign empires. First the Assyrians, then the Babylonians, then the Persians, then the Macedonians, then the other Greek city states, and finally by the time of Christ, Rome. Much like the book of Daniel and other works written within the history of being a subjected people, the book of Revelation is from the genre, from the Greek word, apokolypsis, which means secret teachings, or disclosure, manifestation, revelation. These were words and books of hope written to inspire the people to believe in a future state where things would be put right, where the rulers of the day would be thwarted, the power structures replaced, and righteousness restored. It was easy for the Christians in the first century to look around them and think there must be something more than this, there must be something better than this, God is better than this, and God is in control, and God will set things right, we believe this, and it gives us hope. The passage that I selected this morning to get at the idea of rejoicing in hope is very much a victory celebration over the evils of the world. Evils that to the Christians of the first century were certainly apparent to them and surrounded them in every way, and the victory is complete, and the host of heaven sing hallelujah. Three, maybe four years ago, when I heard this passage preached at the Massanetta Springs Bible and Music Conference the anthem that accompanied the scripture reading and the sermon was the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel's "Messiah" sung by a huge mixed choir of all the musicians and singers that had been there that week. It was truly moving music because it put you in that place. You felt like they had almost accomplished the sound that the writer John of Patmos was describing in court of heaven. So have that song going through your head while I read: Revelation 19: 1-10: 

After this I heard what seemed to be the loud voice of a great multitude in heaven, saying,
Salvation and glory and power to our God,
2     for his judgments are true and just;
he has judged the great whore
who corrupted the earth with her fornication,
and he has avenged on her the blood of his servants.” 
3     Once more they said,
The smoke goes up from her forever and ever.”
4     And the twenty-four elders and the four living creatures fell down and worshiped God who is seated on the throne, saying,
“Amen. Hallelujah!”
5 And from the throne came a voice saying,
“Praise our God,
all you his servants,
and all who fear him,
small and great.”
6     Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the sound of many waters and like the sound of mighty thunderpeals, crying out,
For the Lord our God
the Almighty reigns.
7     Let us rejoice and exult
and give him the glory,
for the marriage of the Lamb has come,
and his bride has made herself ready;
8     to her it has been granted to be clothed
with fine linen, bright and pure”—
for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.
9 And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” And he said to me, “These are true words of God.” 10 Then I fell down at his feet to worship him, but he said to me, “You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your comrades who hold the testimony of Jesus. Worship God! For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.”[1] 

This is the word of the Lord, thanks be to God. Look at this celebration. It is celebrating the idea that God is more powerful than things, all things. He's more powerful than evil, more powerful than war, more powerful than enemies, more powerful than hatred, more powerful than injustice, more powerful than genocide, more powerful than oppression, more powerful than slavery, more powerful than a "bad day", more powerful than a petty disagreement, more powerful than a broken relationship, more powerful than doubt, more powerful than sin, more powerful than our minor disobedience, more powerful than our major disobedience, more powerful than the outcome of some election, more powerful than negative adds, more powerful than cynicism, more powerful than any clear and present danger that we face, and that very fact is cause to celebrate. And not just is God more powerful, God is also good, all the time, beyond time into the infinite, the beginning and the end, and so hope springs in the eternal, the eternity of God.
So we ask ourselves, why not now? Why all this injustice now? Why all this pain now? These earthquakes, this disease, this discord, and hatred and war. Why wait? Why doesn't God just fix it all now if He can? Many agnostics and atheists ask these questions, and speak ardently that if God exists, God is either a monster or is completely ineffective, for to let so much pain exist in the world, and therefore their shouts at God are not hallelujah. I do not hope to preach today as to why, because I do not know the answers of these questions, but I believe part of our comfort is found in the today's idea from the Marks of a Christian. "Rejoice in hope."
It's funny to me to see rejoice in hope. It is so alien to our world to do so. We don't rejoice in hope; we rejoice in attaining things, in victories, in gold medals won, and challenges accomplished, and bottom lines. Those are the things we tend to rejoice in, but how fleeting are the trophies, how fleeting are the accomplishments? How much more inspiring and powerful is it to strive, and having striven felt the extra push of force that hope gives? I'll get back to that because there is something of truth in that, but we aren't ready yet. . .
***Ha ha got you hoping? Man I sure hope I can pull this off? Are you hoping with me? I hope so***
If you look at the prayer of preparation, you'll see that line: hope springs eternal. I chose the passage, coming from one of my favorite poems, Alexander Pope's "Essay on Man." What Pope is trying to accomplish in the poem is to describe the human condition. The poem has four parts, and the first part, from which this passage comes, he is trying to describe the way the world works, and in his words to "justify the ways of God to man," which is one of the great poetic challenges taken up by poets since the beginning of time from the writer of Job, to the psalmist, to Homer, to Shelley, Milton, Keats, all of them, the greats. He takes a different spin on it, reflecting his time, because he questions whether man is in any position, any moral place to question God. He wonders how can you question the maker of you? How can you wish for more than what is? Is it the place of the creature to question the actuality and the quality of the creation? It is a cool poem placing the perfection and the sovereignty of God at the forefront of his understanding of the world, concluding the first section with the poem with some of my favorite turns of a phrase:

All nature is but art, unknown to thee;
All chance, direction, which thou canst not see;
All discord, harmony not understood;
All partial evil, universal good:
And, spite of pride in erring reason's spite,
One truth is clear, whatever is, is right.

In other words, Pope puts the sovereignty of God at a premium, first and foremost in his view of the world and uses that as the lens to view and judge the way the world operates, made perfect by God, but now let's take a look at the section including the words "hope springs eternal" because it is here where he talks about how hope, and hoping is a crucial part of the human condition, as humans were created by God. I'll begin and include a few lines I left out of the bulletin for reasons of space:

Heaven from all creatures hides the book of Fate,
All but the page prescribed, their present state:
From brutes what men, from men what spirits know:
Or who could suffer being here below?
The lamb thy riot dooms to bleed to-day,
Had he thy reason, would he skip and play?
Pleased to the last, he crops the flowery food,
And licks the hand just raised to shed his blood.
Oh, blindness to the future! kindly given,
That each may fill the circle, marked by Heaven:
Who sees with equal eye, as God of all,
A hero perish, or a sparrow fall,
Atoms or systems into ruin hurled,
And now a bubble burst, and now a world.
Hope humbly, then; with trembling pinions soar;
Wait the great teacher Death; and God adore.
What future bliss, He gives not thee to know,
But gives that hope to be thy blessing now.
Hope springs eternal in the human breast:
Man never is, but always to be blest:
The soul, uneasy and confined from home,
Rests and expatiates in a life to come.

 Pope suggests that hoping is part of our nature, that we were created to be hopeful, and that there must be some driving purpose to it, in his words confined from home, perhaps driving back to home. There must be some purpose to which he suggests we should not question. Paul takes it one step further, not just to not question, that we are created hoping, but to rejoice in it. To be thankful for our capacity to hope and rejoice, believing that the future blessings will be incredible.
Hope is an interesting phenomenon in other faith systems. It is not very much a part of the eastern religions and philosophies as we looked at briefly today in Sunday School, and to the pagan Greeks, hope was kind of a mixed bag. As the myth of Pandora goes, when her curiosity compels her to open the box, out come all of the evils of the world, one by one and personified, but too, hiding in the bottom of the box, out pops hope. Hope enters into the world along with the evils according to that ancient Greek story, which shows their world view. Does this mean they saw hope as a piece of the evil, or our only positive in a world now fraught with evil.
How do you view hope? I've spoken often in the last few weeks about cynicism, that most ancient and hopeless of Greek philosophies, many in the world of today would say that hope is foolish, or misguided, or a tool that those of great power, intelligence, and influence use to control those who are hopelessly gullible, dimwitted, and weak. Someone intelligent could never be controlled in such a way. I can see how that would be and could be true. False hopes, or placing  your hope in something that cannot deliver would certainly leave you out on a ledge, looking foolish, that is why hope is tied to faith, and love, those spiritual gifts that Paul writes of in his first letter to the Christians at Corinth. Having faith in the truth, that God is all powerful as I opened with, and that the hallelujah passage gives witness and testimony of provides a hope that is not foolish, but if true the only possible source of hope.
Having hope in that truth can allow us to see our world in a different light, to see our place in the world in a different light, and to see our work in the world in a different life. It allows for the end to be taken care of, to hope for, to inspire us, to recharge us with ultimate drive and desire, infinitely ahead, allowing us to love in the present, rejoicing in the present, rejoicing in hope. I said earlier that trophies and accomplishments sometimes are fleeting at best or underwhelming at worst, anti-climatic might be the best word. There is so much build up that once it's all over and achieved there isn't much left, but life was lived in the achieving. Life is lived in the hope of achieving. There is something to the wisdom of creating human beings with an innate capacity to hope. It drives us, it moves us, it is us, it is life, and life is a gift to be lived, and a gift to be thankful for, and a gift to be rejoiced in, that when it is all over and we come face to face with the infinite, the hallelujahs burst forth from our inward parts with a loving chorus of praise for the amazing love and power that created each and every one of us, completely unique, with an infinite capacity for hope.
I began this morning talking about yesterday and how great of a day it was, and how that it exceeded my hopes for it, but now it is past, and my hope still lives for new opportunities to do new things here at this church, new paths to take with you, just like we the musical and tasty road we walked together yesterday. Our hope springs eternal towards amazing manifestations of the promises of God in the life of each one of us, and the unity of our lives together here. In hope we walk together singing: "Thanks be to God! Hallelujah! Amen."

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Re 19:1-10). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

But How?

But How?
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
August 5, 2012
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Romans 12: 11c
Matthew 20: 20-27 

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 we continue again this morning with the "Marks of a True Christian" from Paul's letter to the Romans 12: 9-21 with verse 11c, the second half the verse we started last week. So far we've looked at:  verse 9, Let love be genuine, hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; verse 10, love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor, and now verse 11: Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, from last week, and now, simply, "serve the lord." Serve the Lord, and so I titled my sermon for this morning, but how? I chose to pair this verse with the prophet Isaiah's account of the suffering servant from the Old Testament, and from Matthew's Gospel, chapter 20: 20-27.
20 Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons, and kneeling before him, she asked a favor of him. 21 And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” 22 But Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?”  They said to him, “We are able.” 23 He said to them, “You will indeed drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left, this is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.”
24 When the ten heard it, they were angry with the two brothers. 25 But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 26 It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; 28 just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many[1] 

I have been thinking this week about what it means to serve, what it means to be a servant, or even a slave, and the first thing that comes to mind is humility. The servant must be humble because he or she is there to follow rather to lead, there to be at the beck and call, the service of someone else. What kept coming to mind to me all week while I was thinking about this text, and I'm not completely sure why, was the scene at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. By way of introduction, I'd like to begin with that story. Indiana Jones has been following his father's quest to find the Holy Grail, but all of his life the father had chosen the study of the grail over spending time with his son, so there is resentment, there is skepticism, and there is doubt, but at the same time real faith is necessary because his father has been shot, and desperately needs the grail now to heal his wounds, so Indiana must take over the quest, facing the three challenges, led by his father's life's work. He has to put aside all of his resentment, skepticism, and doubt, and follow another's directions, putting himself at risk. He faces three challenges, all that require him to put aside himself and be basically his father. The first is to follow the word of God, so he steps on the letters that spell Jehovah, making it across. The next two challenges are what have stuck in my mind. The first had the clue, "the penitent man will pass." He's trying to figure it out, and just in time he does, the penitent man is humble before God, he kneels before God, so Indy kneels, just in time as circular saws spin just inches above his head. Then the last challenge the step of faith. There is a ravine, that must be crossed, and it looks impossible, but the book says the faithful can walk across, so Indy puts aside his thoughts and fears and steps out, and what is revealed is a stone bridge that was hidden in a camouflaged optical illusion, he safely steps across. The cool thing about that scene in the movie is that Indy must become humble, he must follow another's advice, he must follow a path of study, a path of kneeling obedience, and last a path of complete "life on the line" faith in order to get to the grail, and he makes it, chooses the humble clay cup, wisely, and brings the grail out to heal his father. It is a humble walk of faith, and such is service to God.
Serve the Lord. Serve the Lord, but how? be humble, ok, but how? This topic is not as easy as it seems. If you look at the world you will see a lot of different ways people interpret what it means to serve the Lord. On opposite sides of the political aisle you find people who are trying to serve the Lord in very different ways. In other cultures and other countries service to the Lord takes very different shapes. It may include sacrifices of animals, or fasting, or following lists of rules, or any number of different things. In Sunday School class the last few weeks we looked at Islam, which has its own set of ways for serving Allah, and this morning we were looking at Hinduism, where service to god revolves around following one's own dharma, which is a path that is very different for all people. But what do we see when it says there in black and white in verse eleven of out text, "serve the lord." How do we tell if the work that we are doing is serving the Lord, or just serving our misguided sense?
One of the things that I have noticed since I have begun the study of this passage is that the Marks of a True Christian are the marks of Jesus, so one way of getting at what is meant by serving the Lord is in following the example that Jesus has left us as the servant, as described both by Isaiah and Matthew. The Gospel lesson for this morning concluded with: "just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve." What are the ways in which Jesus was a servant? There are some that are very obvious. If we look at the life of Jesus we will see Jesus teaching people about God, and life, and love. We see Jesus healing the sick, casting out demons, and bringing healing to many. We see Jesus serving food, washing feet, getting his own hands dirty. We see Jesus caring, caring seems to be a big piece of the service puzzle. A servant must care enough about who and what he serves, and there seems to be a connection between service and caring for the people around him who are in need, and in serving God. These seem to be the basics of service, but Jesus goes further than this, goes further than the basics, though he doesn't by any means ignore the basics, but his mission and service to God take him eventually to the cross, and the cross seems to be the pinnacle of his servant hood, and for us, who are called to serve and called to carry and be marked with the cross, must also include the cross in our serving of the Lord.
And so what is the example of the cross in serving God? To me there seems to be three important examples of service found in the cross, and they are crucial examples. The three are, Reconciliation, Setting people free, and Sacrifice. I believe these three ideas must mark our service to the Lord. They become a good test to see if the work that we are doing is in service to the Lord. Let's take a look at each one.
Reconciliation. Jesus died so that we could be reconciled to God, forgiven. Service to the Lord must include this idea of reconciliation. How can we work in our world to bring people together? How can we work in our world to forgive those around us? How can we work in our world to be an agent inspiring forgiveness in others? This needs to be a major piece in our service. It is something that is always needed because conflict is ever present in our world, but conflict does not need to be bad. So many times we seek to avoid conflict at all cost. I don't think that is always good. Sometimes conflict is needed because the working through it, the reconciliation step brings us closer, more strong in our relationships because of the experience of the conflict itself. Think about it: is the potential to our relationship with God stronger, having gone through the fall, having understood further the power of God's love for us, the amazing depth of God's love for us, the boundless nature of God's love for us, so big that it includes the gift of Jesus Christ. Of course the cost is great, but it shows the possibility and power that reconciliation has. If the work that we are doing is not bringing people together, but instead is dividing, it is possible that it is not in the Lord's service.
The next is setting people free. There is no greater example of God's work and love than this. All throughout the pages of the Bible we can see the work that God does as a freer of peoples. From the great freeing of the Israelite slaves in Egypt, to the freedom from Sin that Christ buys for us on the cross we see a God who sets his people free. How can we be freedom fighters in the world? How can we fight to set those around us free. There are many things in our world that enslaves. We have drugs that enslave our bodies, we have sin and doubt that enslaves our minds. There is real oppression that surrounds us at every turn. All around the world there are people who use and manipulate others for their own ends. The people they use become mere pawns and tools. How can we set those people free? Finding ways would certainly be following Christ's example and serving the Lord. If our work's object is binding people rather than setting them free we are not serving the Lord.
Finally, Sacrifice. Obviously sacrifice was a major part of Jesus' work on the cross. There is pain involved, there is shame involved, harassment, ridicule, even death involved, and Jesus willingly goes through with it. Self sacrifice must be present in what we mean when we say serve the Lord. We must offer up our complete self, and it is hard to do. It is hard to do, but necessary. Reconciliation is many times impossible without sacrifice. Many times we have to give up our own agendas, our own manipulations, our own feelings of rightness to listen, to hear, to understand those from whom we are estranged in order to reconcile. When we are setting people free, many times the road is also fraught with danger, so willingness to sacrifice is paramount to our success.
All through this series on the marks of a true Christian, we keep trying to put the mirror up, and we continually find more and more that we would need to be to truly live up to the distinction. There is always more that we can do, always more that we can be, and always more that we can give because our model gave all, and so must we if we are truly to become Christians in reality. As Indiana Jones does, sacrificing himself, not just physically by putting his body on the line, but also his resentment, and his doubt, he sacrifices them to serve his father's will, to finish his father's quest. He must walk the path of a Christian, and in doing so he is reconciled to his father and sets  him free from his life's obsession of the grave. He also finds that he is set free, and finds a little piece of faith along the way. There is something about trying to walk the path of God, which is the way, shows the way, and brings us closer and closer to our heart's true desire of being home again in the midst of our creator. God give us the strength.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Mt 20:20-28). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.