Sunday, November 25, 2012

When Eyes See Truth

When Eyes See Truth
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
November 25, 2012
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Romans 12:20-21
Matthew 17:14-21 

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

I've been looking ahead to this part of the marks of a Christian since I started. It is enticing to say the least because it is the first one that talks about the reaction of the other, the effect of Christianity on other people, and for that alone it is cool, but then the claim of the effect is provocative as well. This morning we look at the last two verses, two because they go together, the second is the conclusion of the first, and possibly even the conclusion of the entire mission of a Christian, but since we finish today, let's start by reading the entire passage, even before we pull out today's:
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. 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. [1] 

The gospel passage that I chose to pair with this passage is actually Matthew 17:14-21, the account of Jesus healing a young demoniac. I think the reason for the pairing will be apparent as we continue this morning, so I won't do much in terms of introduction. 

14 When they came to the crowd, a man came to him, knelt before him, 15 and said, “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and he suffers terribly; he often falls into the fire and often into the water. 16 And I brought him to your disciples, but they could not cure him.” 17 Jesus answered, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him here to me.” 18 And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and the boy was cured instantly. 19 Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?” 20 He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.”  

If your enemies are hungry feed them, if they are thirsty, give them drink, for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads." As we have seen, this morning, Paul quotes this directly from Proverbs, so it is in fact ancient wisdom rather than a new Christian claim, but before I get too far into this I want to let you know a little about my journey because to be honest when I started looking at this passage this week, I didn't remember it being from Proverbs. I even thought when I copied it into the bulletin that the quotation marks were incorrect. I don't have the book of Proverbs memorized, though maybe I'd be that much wiser if I did. The first thing that I wanted to find out was, "do I understand this hot coals on the head" business correctly. I wanted to make sure that it wasn't some kind of idiom, that would mean something completely different to the early Christian audience than it does to us. I thought about it, maybe, lighting a fire on someone's head, could be like our idea of fire being spiritual or enlightening, inspiring action, but instead I found that it was a direct quote from Solomon's wisdom collection.
So I thought to myself, what is wisdom? I did some word studies about wisdom and found a couple of interesting things. One definition that I found of wisdom was that it means "a deep understanding and realization of people, things, events or situations," and I also found that one of the antiquated synonyms of wisdom is the word, "Sapience" which comes from the same root as the latin for our species, Homo Sapien, and also that Sapience, comes from the Latin verb, sapere, which means "to taste" as well as "to know." So I take from this two major ideas that I think are important. 1. That wisdom is connected in every part to what it means to be human, on the most primal basic elemental basis, and 2. That wisdom is experiential in that it comes from the idea of tasting. But the question then remains is can our senses, our sensory perceptions of the "way things are" the way we see the world around us, the way we taste in our senses lead us to truth, or is something else needed?
The reason this is important is that many times our observations of the world do not point us in the same direction as Biblical Wisdom, and an example is a typical reading of our passage for today. Our passage for today seems to go against basic logic. It seems to directly contradict the common sense deal. If I feed my enemies he will be nourished, if I give him drink his thirst will be quenched. In other words, if I take care of my enemy, he will be stronger, and therefore likely to overcome and destroy me, which is not what I want, so I will not do it. That seems like logical truth. Why on earth would my providing for my enemy's needs ever pour "hot coals on his head?" I teach with a guy, who finds great pleasure in pointing out to me the idea that the Christian viewpoint is silly, fantastical, fairy tale nonsense. He would point to a passage like this one and our gospel reading for today and say that the teaching in it is metaphorical at best, and downright misleading at worst, completely impractical, completely untrue. Faith being enough to move a mountain is a particular favorite of his to point out that faithful people are ignorant.
This has been a problem for many Christians throughout history, especially when faced with the dilemma of science and faith becoming at odds with each other. John Bunyan in his book "A Pilgrim's Progress" has the allegorical character called "Worldy Wise" leading Christian astray. Is that forever the case, that science and faith are at odds with one another? It doesn't seem to be the case here because Paul is evoking ancient "wisdom" by quoting Solomon, but then maybe Solomon isn't worldly wisdom, but instead Godly wisdom, but I wonder why those need be at odds, when we affirm that this world was created by God. From a scientific standpoint it seems like the observations of faithful people throughout history should not be ignored, and from a religious point of view, aren't many of the claims of Christianity right in line with most scientific observations, do dinosaurs and evolution really challenge our grasp on truth and faith? Jesus often uses the natural world to help substantiate his claims, i.e., consider the lilies of the field, just to name one. It seems then that there should be harmony between our observations of the world, which we call science, and the claims of Christianity.
Let's take our passage as a test for this. What would need to be true for the idea that feeding and giving drink to your enemies actually pours hot coals on their head? Actually the Greek word for coal is Anthrax, doesn't that just make this passage all the more interesting? What would need to be true so that feeding and giving drink to our enemies actually heaps a little anthrax on their head? Obviously, the Anthrax or the coal is metaphorical. Everything that I could find in studying this phrase says that it has to do with feeling shame or embarrassment for your actions, which makes sense because when  you feel shame you blush, your face turns red as if you were hot, Hebrew is full of poetry like this, such is the case when you don't have a lot of words for stuff. So your enemies feel shame when you treat them kindly, why? Why would they even care, unless human beings, all human beings, even our enemies do innately know that there is right and wrong, and they also know the difference between right and wrong, and that kindness is always right and discord always wrong? That forgiveness and love are the ways the world is supposed to work, and discord and holding grudges are not.
Look at the Prayer for Preparation. It is a quote from Martin Luther King's writing explaining the idea of non-violent protest.

I am quite aware of the fact that there are persons who believe firmly in nonviolence who do not believe in a personal God, but I think every person who believes in nonviolent resistance believes somehow that the universe in some form is on the side of justice. That there is something unfolding in the universe whether one speaks of it as a unconscious process, or whether one speaks of it as some unmoved mover, or whether someone speaks of it as a personal God. There is something in the universe that unfolds for justice and so in Montgomery we felt somehow that as we struggled we had cosmic companionship. And this was one of the things that kept the people together, the belief that the universe is on the side of justice. [2]              

Do you hear it? That is the idea here. There is something observable in the world, and King says it transcends "religion," that even non Christians can get a sense of it, he calls it justice, I would call it love because I think the way the word justice has been used lately brings trouble,  now I believe Dr. King can see the non Christians belief this way because he is a Christian, and therefore sees how the world works within God's control, and that no human being is born without this God consciousness even if they can't put it in the words of Christian faith. This being the case, when human beings are faced with the truth of righteousness it forces them to see it, and the result is shame and embarrassment, or heaping of hot coals on their heads, or as happened in the Garden of Eden, shame, hiding from the truth. Forced to see the truth change then occurs, it has to, because that is the way the world is set up. The success of nonviolent protests throughout the world, from Birmingham, Alabama, to Cape Town, South Africa, to British Controlled India,  is an observable scientific testament to this powerful truth, that it is more than just antiquated wisdom, and more universal than an exclusive Christian claim that places God in a small box, that it is undeniable true truth, sapience, wisdom and part of being human, the true throughout the entire world regardless of religious affiliation. It's just a truth often missed, and often shadowed in the mist[3] of what we call sin.
I mentioned, the hiding from God, from Genesis. Let's think about that story more. My friend would say the story is fictional, but look at how the truths espoused in the story are more in line with the truth we are observing around us. Look at what happens, the serpent says to Eve, you shall not surely die, a direct refutation of God's statement, you shall surely die, upon eating the fruit, in other words, God lies, and if God lies, then truth is not truth, wisdom is not wisdom, if God is a liar, the God who speaks things into existence, a la "Let there be light and it was" if that God is a liar, what does it say about existence, purpose, etc.? We call believing this, original sin, and we then feel shame and hide ourselves, sound familiar? What are the fruits of sin then? How does it manifest itself in our world outside the garden, blinding us to real truth?
A couple of years ago I was teaching American Literature, and I actually used this complete story this morning in Sunday School to make a point, subtly cultivating the soil for this morning's message. The story is Young Goodman Brown, by Nathaniel Hawthorne, one of  his many short stories covering, much like The Scarlet Letter, his Puritan ancestors in Salem, what is now Massachusetts. In the story the main character, Brown, ventures into the woods to meet the devil. In the woods he sees all of the other people in the town, there as well, making him forget his own sinfulness, and focusing on how the rest of the world is corrupted. At one point the Devil says the following:
Depending upon one another's hearts, ye had still hoped that virtue were not all a dream. Now are ye undeceived. Evil is the nature of mankind. Evil must be your only happiness. Welcome again, my children, to the communion of your race

On a test I posed to my students this question:

This is the climax, the main message of the devil’s sermon in the woods, in “Young Goodman Brown.” Explain his message. How is just believing this message to be true enough to destroy Young Goodman Brown’s life? How is just believing this message to be true enough to destroy our world? Give an example from today’s culture that would lead us to think that people do believe this message.

The truth is, this is sin talking. It is a reframing of the serpent's message in the garden, but how deeply does it permeate the way we see ourselves, see our neighbors and see the world in which we live, not created "good," not created by a good God, but hopelessly evil, where virtue, truth, and even God himself, are "but a dream."
Also on that test, I played for them a song written by Kris Kristofferson, entitled, "To Beat the Devil."( ) (In the song the devil sings to the speaker, when he is down out and in a bad place,

"If you waste your time a-talkin' to the people who don't listen,
"To the things that you are sayin', who do you think's gonna hear.
"And if you should die explainin' how the things that they complain about,
"Are things they could be changin', who do you think's gonna care?"
There were other lonely singers in a world turned deaf and blind,
Who were crucified for what they tried to show.
And their voices have been scattered by the swirling winds of time.
'Cos the truth remains that no-one wants to know.

Then he completes the song with the following:

Well, the old man was a stranger, but I'd heard his song before,
Back when failure had me locked out on the wrong side of the door.
When no-one stood behind me but my shadow on the floor,
And lonesome was more than a state of mind.

You see, the devil haunts a hungry man,
If you don't wanna join him, you got to beat him.
I ain't sayin' I beat the devil, but I drank his beer for nothing.
Then I stole his song.

And you still can hear me singin' to the people who don't listen,
To the things that I am sayin', prayin' someone's gonna hear.
And I guess I'll die explaining how the things that they complain about,
Are things they could be changin', hopin' someone's gonna care.

I was born a lonely singer, and I'm bound to die the same,
But I've got to feed the hunger in my soul.
And if I never have a nickle, I won't ever die ashamed.
'Cos I don't believe that no-one wants to know.

That is the beauty of truth, it tends to stand on its own, and it cannot be denied, when people are forced to face it, so feed your enemies and quench their thirst because it will show the world that this world is set up for good, that God exists, and that this world will bend over backwards for those who are loving because that is the way the world was made, and the way the world functions.
Christ's teachings show us the wisdom that faith allows, Christ's life shows us the possibilities of what faith allows, and Christ's death and resurrection show us the limitless wonder of what truth is, the truth that Goodness, Righteousness, and Love are the real powers in this universe, forever defeating doubt, evil, cynicism, and wrong. Christ reminds us that we are created in God's image, and seeks to wipe away that sin that keeps us from that glorious distinction. Christ shows us that evil can be overcome by good and that evil will be overcome by good because good is the way the world truly is. Believing such will allow you to move mountains because the mountains themselves are a part of that creation, and are a piece of that created potential, faith makes things possible beyond our wildest sin filled imaginings.
I want to close this morning with an amazing quote from a man who understood this truth about the world, and the amazing perseverance that such faith gave him, and the mountains he moved, even through long years, when "failure had him locked on the wrong side of a door" his door was a prison cell in South Africa, Nelson Mandela said the following:

Our greatest fear is not that we are inadequate,
but that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness, that frightens us.

We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, handsome, talented and fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be?

You are a child of God.
Your playing small does not serve the world.
There is nothing enlightened about shrinking
so that other people won't feel insecure around you.

We were born to make manifest the glory of God within us.
It is not just in some; it is in everyone.

And, as we let our own light shine,
we consciously give other people permission
to do the same. As we are liberated from our fear,
our presence automatically liberates others.

How about that for truth, that "heaps hot coals on our heads?" Mandela's story shows us the potential of the world that God created. Let us allow Christ to wipe away that sin, and live into the truth of a world created by God, having left behind sin, living finally into the Marks of a True Christian, we will see a world where we are not overcome by evil, but that evil is overcome, not temporarily by more necessary evil, but forever into infinity by good. You can almost hear Jesus' words echoing throughout time, asking us when:

You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him here to me.” 18 And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and the boy was cured instantly. 19 Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?” 20 He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.”  


[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Ro 12:9-21). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[2] King, Martin Luther. "The Power of Nonviolence." Teaching American History.
[3] Allusion to a line in my poem, "Night Lights"
When stars shine in darkness
Sparkling white ‘gainst the night
It’s a moment often missed
Or oft times shadowed in the mist
Too much light can blur that far off twinkle
Artificial light blinding our eyes
To the natural wonder of created gleaming
Brighter beaming, but an eternity away
At least seeming because we cannot control
What we have not made, though we try
Thinking if we just could, it would be better
Truly made righteous, made just, for us, by us
Or at least me, I cannot speak for others
So many opinions there would be on just
How it should be, what perfect could be
If we could just agree. Maybe that is why
He who made the sky, made all things
All rules, all decisions, for only He knows
The hearts of all, the dreams we all seem
To find in the sky, hidden behind the gleaming
Of our artificial light’s own beaming.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Championship Run

The Championship Run
Rev. Coach Peter T. Atkinson

With the heat of the August sun burning down
The Barons came together in good old Dyke town
For what was to be their season of glory,
So listen to me as I tell you the story.
100 yard sprints with a short time to beat
Then, three practices a day in that sweltering heat
Learning the I, and the 3-5-3
Keeping it simple on O and on D
Getting in shape, to catch, tackle, and run
Did I fail to mention the heat from the sun
But together we grew, through weights in the pool
And after only a week headed to Potomac School
To scrimmage against them, and those Episcopal boys
Who tested our skills and our quarterbacks' poise
A couple big plays showed us our strong potential,
But we saw how endurance would also be essential
For with all the players playing both ways
It would be hard to get through those hot Saturdays.
So before we collapsed we called it a win
In another week the regular season would begin
But at Blue Ridge School nothing is cake like
With freshmen away, and a bonfire snake bite
One quarterback hurt, and the other with fumbles
It was hard to watch our exchanges and stumbles
Also with Jared out with his knee
We played our first game with only sixteen.
Though we were fast, we just could not behave
Luckily for us it was only Hargrave,
Turnovers and penalties, sun, wind, and rain
Somehow we scored again and again
A win is a win is a win so they say,
But wins would be thin if we still played that way
So we the next week traveled to Blessed Sac
Giving the ball to our three running backs
Breaking two hundred and fifty we grounded
With power and ice we dove and we pounded
We hit them, we hurt them, ambulance lights flashing
23-7 didn't quite capture the thrashing,
But we celebrated in style with pizza by starlight
And who could forget those cookies were  just right
Such support we've gotten from our parents all season
Giving us love and giving us a reason
Their love it was always shining so bright
Their cheering,  it urged us on through the fight
Numbers, numbers, Our numbers were few
But the seed was planted and therefore it grew.
Inspiring to play Canada's lax guy named Pace
Then a short time later we also got Chase
Each man counted for every man we'd need
Every one's contribution we'd need to succeed
But rolling on we did, back home against North Cross
We fell behind early, but would not suffer our first loss
41 unanswered points we would score on,
Once we got it going the points we would pour on
But slow starts had become part of our game
The next two wins were more of the same,
Both requiring last second drives,
Fighting and clawing, scratching for our lives,
In the first we got more trouble than expected
When just standing on the sideline coach got ejected
And in the second we put on a Homecoming show
But we trailed in it too with just a minute to go
Needing last second passes to put both games away
Against Covenant twas Leon, St. Stephens P.J.
We'd talked all week about coming together
Adversity sought to divide us but we wouldn't let her
We knew that we had to depend on each other
Bleeding and battling, brother to brother.
Again a win is a win, and now we'd won five
But our next game would come after a 3 hour drive
Down to Christchurch a debt had to be paid
For last year we'd lost both games we played
But injuries got us, changing our game,
Who could forget Cody writhing in pain
Close it was and close we kept it,
But they kept the ball we couldn't intercept it
So that Tuesday our perfect season was tattered
But we knew we could beat them next time when it mattered
And so we played again just four days hence
Back home inside the split rail fence
The Bishops came visiting to end our despair
With our running game slowed we went to the air
And we saw the return of our prodigal son
Darryl Smith's senior season had finally begun
He opened it up with a bomb down the sideline
It didn't take long for the man to make headlines
But the man of the day was our man Shawn Steen
Hobbled by injury, playing but winged
Tears in his eyes he made three kicks
Scored two touch downs, and grabbed two picks.
And after the copter and the ambulance finally came
Flying highest of high, we won our sixth game
All season we seemed to  start off slow
Now starting slow would catch up to us though
I wouldn't believe it if I hadn't seen it
Not even in nightmares could anyone dream it.
For off to Liberty we would travel to next
But the Bulldogs muscles were ripped and flexed
And score at will they did fast and often
Five scores in five minutes put us in the coffin
But they weren't done until they scored fifty four
They say when it rains that also it pours
The Barons were humbled neath those stadium lights,
But a season isn't defined in only one night
Rebound we had to, and rebound we did
We had to get off of that single game skid,
And what better way than to face poor St. Anne's
Stomping their face in, in front of their fans.
With the running game back healthy and ready to roll
Recapturing momentum was our biggest goal
Knowing we can always score with the pass
We pushed and we fought and we just kicked their ass
We again ran right, left and around
Gaining two fifty again on the ground.
True greatness we were right on the verge
Our offensive line regaining their surge
And into the playoffs we took our space
And since they lost Christchurch traveled out to our place,
With Leon on the sidelines, Muji and PJ at home
We counted on each other to get the job done
With 26 yards in the first half on offense
Coach Patterson's speech was simple and intense
He looked every player straight in their eyes
And asked for whatever they still had inside
We knew that we needed to show we were tough
It must have been much or at least just enough
For we came out a totally different team
Returning again to our run the ball theme
Pounding and pushing like we'd done often before
We marched down the field and scored two more
Then we ended the game with one final statement
Pushing across Cody for that one debt payment
And onward the Barons would forward to go
And face Nansemond Suffolk tomorrow we know
One game left to determine the champ
The journey we started way back in camp
What those Saints from Suffolk will see
Is a team that has grown exponentially
Grown together,  tested by fire and pain
Performing in sunshine, heat, cold, and rain
We can't be defeated standing with one another
Battling and Bleeding, together as brothers
There is no doubt we have in our grip
The sweet, sweet victory of the championship!
Because you can hear Coach Patterson say with a grin,
"If you put on that jersey, you might as well win!
And so we did, 41-16, state champs, enough said.

Change Focus

Change Focus
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
November 18, 2012
Gordonsville Community Thanksgiving Service
at Christ Episcopal Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Matthew 6:25-33

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.

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink,  or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 28 And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ 32 For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. [1]  

Thank you all for inviting, or maybe it was drafting me to speak this year, which ever I'm very honored and excited to be before you this morning. Happy Thanksgiving to all. I hope that this week brings for you, all of you, happiness, time spent together with friends and with family, a chance to take a break from it all, at least for a day, and to give Thanks. Blessings also for those of you who will be giving of your time to serve. This holiday, Thanksgiving, especially, can bring out the very best in us, because I do think that gratitude is central to what it means to be human, and such a child of God, but my question for this evening is, "How often do we find ourselves unthankful, ungrateful, and even sometimes bitter, when we have that hard to deal with combination of expecting more and getting less?" It is this that seems to blind us to the truth about what we truly have and what we have been given.
Let's think for just a moment about our expectation. What are the things in our world that we simply expect to be taken care of. We simply expect it, we wake up in the morning, and we go through our day and things are happening all around us, but we don't even notice them. We are so insulated from the truth that surrounds us at every moment, that we have these unconscious expectations.  We expect them, and so we are not thankful for them. Bill Engvall, a comedian best known for his work with Jeff Foxworthy and that Blue Collar crowds, sums this idea up nicely when he's talking about losing his luggage on an air flight, he has this bit where he points out the silly way people tend to state the obvious, and he thinks they should have to wear a sign that says, I'm stupid, so he goes down to the lost luggage place, says hey yall lost my luggage, and the lady there, he says bless her heart, says "Has Your plane landed yet?" Which he replies with, "no princess I'm having an out of body experience," and his familiar refrain of "Here's your sign", but then he says something poignant, he says he didn't want to be too hard on her because as he says, "People in lost luggage never have a good day, no one ever comes by there to say, "hey thanks got my bags," instead all they do is catch grief all day. Isn't that true, a perfect picture of the fact that we don't thank folks for the things we expect. Most of us don't even realize there are "lost luggage" people until we need to use them.
We don't even notice the things we expect there until they are gone. Electricity and heat, and the convenience of grocery stores, and shopping malls, and the internet, and cell phones. Ask the folks who were so struck by hurricane Sandy how important electricity is to their lives as the temperature plummets and they are without heat, but did they feel as thankful for it mid September? Or think about us mid-summer when that storm swept through here knocking down trees and the power of many was out for days afterwards, and it was all of 100 humid degrees. So quickly it's gone, and we notice finally what we miss. We have all these things and we are dependent on all these things, but because we expect them, we rarely show our gratitude.
Do we even know where they all come from? Do we know the intricate process that brings power to our house so that we can heat our rooms, store our food at cool or freezing temperatures and then ratchet up the stove to extreme temperatures to boil our potatoes so we can mash them and swerve them up for our guests this Thursday? Do we know where our potatoes come from? Do we know the loving hands that planted the seed, row upon row upon row, somewhere in the middle of Idaho? These are the unthanked strangers to which we owe so much, but on the flipside we are also those same unthanked strangers for other unknown strangers because the services we provide throughout the world, the lives we live, they make an impact as well, though many times we also are blinded to the fact that our lives really do matter, from the big things we do to the small.
I'm a teacher as well as the pastor over at the Presbyterian Church, and at the end of the year we send a new group of seniors off into the world to go impact it, but the ripples of impact spiral out from us and we don't always see how they become manifest, sure we see that commencement day, but what's beyond? I think they call it the butterfly effect, that a butterfly flapping its wings in Africa can be the breeze that starts a hurricane. How are our actions effecting people? And are they thankful for what we give? Should they be?
But these are questions for another day, because this week we focus on the things that we are thankful for. Our Gospel passage talks about the gifts that God bestows upon birds, lilies, and grass. Now I know that it's a metaphor, but let's think about it literally for a moment. As an English teacher I think it is always important to understand the literal before jumping to the figurative. Would you be thankful for something so simple as what birds eat, the clothes that a lily wears, the monotone green of the grass's fall ensemble? Or do we expect more? But what is more exactly? What do we mean by more? Clothes, cars, stuff, whatever the guy next to us has, or our neighbor down the street, or those in the next tax bracket up, is that what we mean by more? To the birds God provides food, to the lilies water and sunlight, the same for the grass, and then they in turn provide their natural gift to the world. Would it require a lowering of our expectations to be truly thankful for the sunlight, water, air, and food that give us life, each breath, relationships, each day, a loving, sustaining, nurturing, providing, redeeming, forgiving, constant, saving God or would it instead take a change of focus? A look beyond the secondary sources back to the original source of all things. That is what we do this one week of the year. We try to reconnect, if just for a moment, to the source of our lives, so that we can be truly thankful for them.
Two events of have really clicked in my mind as I was trying to develop the ending for these remarks. One was this morning, our choir over at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church sang the hymn about counting your blessings, and it made me think of the song that Rosemary Clooney and others sang in White Christmas, when they sang

When I'm worried and I can't sleep
I count my blessings instead of sheep
And I fall asleep
Counting my blessings

So I thought about how we are blessed in so many different ways, and how it is great to recount them to ourselves, so we can feel gratitude, but then another thing happened yesterday, too, that now has me thinking how we can take that old song's idea just a little bit further. Some of you may know that I am the Offensive Coordinator of the football team over at Blue Ridge School, and you may also know if you read the paper or watched the news that we won the state championship yesterday. What an amazing day! Afterwards we had a small team pizza dinner bought for us by the parents of the players, also very cool. But as we were about to start I put on my pastor panic thought, what if they ask me to pray? Absolute panic, who do I thank, who will I forget, etc. etc. But it got me thinking, how many people have created in some way the success that we had yesterday. Obviously the boys with their hard work and the other coaches and I had a deep role, but who shaped us, who shaped each player, every one of our experiences, all of our relationships, good and bad, all of them have created the individuals that won that game yesterday, and the hand of God was in all of those relationships. And I know this is just one example, but every blessing in our lives is like that as well, so instead of just counting our blessings I want us to also try to trace them.It is a good exercise to try to trace the amazing people who have touched us, and the amazing providential system that God sets up to provide all of the glorious blessings of our lives. I opened this evening talking about electricity, heat, and air conditioning, and those glorious potatoes from that unknown farmer our in Idaho. It's fun to trace our blessings from person to person, but it is also worthwhile to trace your blessings back to God. Not just going to sleep counting blessings, but tracing them, seeing the way that God provides for all of our needs, in ways so beyond our expectation that the very idea of expecting mocks God, for God gives ever so much more than what we can fathom, ever much more than what we can expect, ever so much more than what we can even understand, even the challenges, the struggles, the adversity, all of it is a blessing to us. May we be ever and truly thankful. Amen, which truly means, may it be so.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Mt 6:25-33). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Leave Room

Leave Room
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
November 18, 2012
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Romans 12:19
Matthew 18:23-35 

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 long journey we've been on is nearing its close. Next week is the last Sunday before Advent begins, and with advent comes a new Christmas year, my green stoll will turn to white next week and then to purple, a new season, a new year, and a new focus. For the past six months we have bee looking at the marks of a true Christian according to Paul's letter to the Romans and we are now down to our final two passages. They both have to do with our role in our relationships with each other, how we interact, how we engage with one another, and most importantly how we forgive one another. The verse for this morning is, "Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay says the Lord." And now looking back: 

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. 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it.19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord ”  

Though I know vengeance and forgiveness are not the same thing they are two sides of the same coin. Vengeance is the active antithesis of forgiveness, and anything other than forgiveness, in such a situation is truly just passive vengeance, so long as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. I chose the following parable to share with you this morning, because it has to do with forgiveness, and it paints what I think is the most important part of this mark, which is that it ends the cycle, allowing God to work according to His will, Matthew 18: 23-35.

The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant

23 “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25 and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. 26 So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 31 When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32 Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35 So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”[1]  

I always like when I can find literary examples for my sermons, and the topic of revenge, may just be one of the most often repeated themes throughout all of literature. The most famous is probably The Count of Monte Cristo where Edmund Dantes, the future count, is wrongfully imprisoned, then escapes and dedicates himself to seeking his revenge. In one of the verbal exchanges between him and his mentor the Abbe Faria, the Abbe is trying to tell him to forget his revenge, and he quotes our Today's Mark of a Christian. The Abbe Faria says:

" Here is your final lesson - do not commit the crime for which you now serve the sentence. God said, Vengeance is mine.

To which Edmond Dantes replies:  

I don't believe in God.

That seems to say it all doesn't it. That truly that seeking vengeance is not an act of faith, but rather one of doubt. If you believe that God exists, and if you believe that God is in control of all things, and that God is just, then vengeance need not be part of your mindset. Easily said sure. From this standpoint I've always also wondered about my favorite of Shakespeare's plays, Hamlet. Think about it the ghost of Hamlet's father comes to him, from Purgatory, claiming to come from Purgatory, and asks Hamlet to avenge his death., to which Hamlet says, "O cursed spite that I was born to set things right," believing the vengeance all to be in his hands, but think about it: the ghost comes from Purgatory, which in the literary world that Shakespeare creates and according to the Catholic faith proves that God is real and that God is Just, otherwise  there would be no Purgatory right, but yet Hamlet does not see that his visitor from the afterlife is a witness of the resurrection and divine providence of his maker, but rather a spur for him to be the agent of vengeance. Both Hamlet and Edmond Dantes learn their lesson but in both cases it comes too late. Let's look at quotes from them to show their learning of this principle. Dantes says later, having acquired a new level of faith
 For all evils there are two remedies - time and silence.
And Hamlet says:
Not a whit, we defy augury: there's a special
providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now,
'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be
now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The
readiness is all. Since no man of aught he leaves knows
what is't to leave betimes, let be. (5.2)

Let be, so easily said not so easily done. Let be is another way of saying as Paul does leave room, or as Dantes says, "time and silence." How hard for us is it to do nothing, to not act, to allow the Providence of God's loving justice to take over control.
I hate to do it, but I have another literary example, hey I teach literature, and it is taking all the discipline in the world to not give all football analogies, after winning the State Championship yesterday. The truth is that I always seem to be reading the right book, that whatever book I am reading seems to fit nicely, sort of providentially, in with the subject I'm called to preach about. For the last few weeks, well months really, I've been sort of busy lately, I've been reading Ben Hur, by General Lew Wallace, of Billy the Kid fame, and what an amazing story of redemption from the all consuming world of vengeance. Many of you have no doubt seen the movie, but the book is even more on point with this morning's message. If you've seen the movie, you know that Ben Hur is a Jewish prince, who is in the wrong place at the wrong time, when a tile comes loose on his roof falling on the new Roman Consul. The Romans see the accident as a chance to steal the Hur's fortune. They condemn Hur's mother and sister into a leprous dungeon and Ben Hur to life as a galley slave. Fortune smiles on Hur when he saves a Roman Admiral's life and becomes his adopted son. He, like Edmond Dantes, dedicates himself to revenge the people who treated him so poorly. Hur defeats the Romans who put him away in an epic Chariot race, for which The Roman, Mesalla  is embarrassed and due to betting on himself his entire fortune completely ruined. But that is not enough for Ben Hur, he now as a revolutionary transfers his vengeance to destruction of Rome entirely,

In fact, his hatred of Rome and Romans reached a higher mark than ever; his desire for vengeance became a thirst which attempts at reflection only intensified. In the almost savage bitterness of his humor many mad impulses took hold of him. 

Such are the fruits of a vengeful spirit, and when he hears of the coming of The Messiah, unlike the movie he commits himself to The Nazarene's Service, where he witnesses all of the amazing miracles and teachings accounted in the gospels. In his vengeance though he is blind to the truth about Jesus, even standing there with him. He is following Jesus, but carrying a sword, when asked, "Why are you armed?" he answers, "It may be necessary to defend the Nazarene." Oh the irony of using a sword to protect God. How often do we fall into that trap in our own lives? How often do we feel that we need to defend God, when all of the time it should be and is the opposite? All the time walking with Jesus, seeing the miracles, even the raising of the dead, and Ben Hur is still missing it, he looks at Jesus, he

Glowed with the thought that the melancholy man [Jesus], under gentle seeming and wondrous self-denial, was in fact carrying in disguise the subtlety of a politician and the genius of a soldier.  

He so wants Jesus to be what he is, he wants Jesus to hate Rome like he does, he wants God to do his will, but again God's plans are so much bigger, so much bigger.
Think about the parable in our Gospel lesson for this morning. How hard is it to return the favor of forgiveness? How hard is it to break the cycle of vengeance? Like the king who is hoping to end the cycle of debt, Jesus has forgiven us, but how often do we miss the import of what Christ is doing in our lives, fail to forgive others, and remain in the cycle of debt and vengeance where we are stuck?
Faith offers a resolution, an end to the cycle of vengeance, but faith is necessary isn't it? We have to know that God is working wonders in our lives and is in control. Do you feel forgiven? Have you seen God working in your life? I hope you answer yes to those questions, but I realize we may not be. If not the cycle of vengeance can live, as it does in Edmond Dantes, in disbelief. If you have felt the touch of God in your life, if you are aware of his presence, though, do you think that God's working within your life is limited in the ways he has done so in the past? Or is God's working, in your perspective, limited to his working in yours and not others? You have a concept of God working, but not sure how thorough it is, that maybe you are on your own to right the wrongs like Hamlet, or feel that the Messiah does not seem to be up to par like the way Ben Hur feels. When the truth is that the same God who made you, loves you, the same God who created the standards forgives you, the same God who determines what justice is, is in control to make justice happen. Therefore why hold the grudge, why force the vengeance, why create your own brand of limited misguided so called justice, instead forgive, love, and be thankful, for God is good, and is sufficient. Amen.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Mt 18:23-35). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.