Sunday, January 27, 2013

Where Were Hearing Here?

Where Were Hearing Here?
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
January 27, 2013
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
1 Corinthians 12:12-31 

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

12 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

14 Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15 If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16 And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? 18 But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19 If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many members, yet one body. 21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” 22 On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; 24 whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, 25 that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. 26 If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.

27 Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. 28 And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. 29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30 Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? 31 But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.[1]  

As I was struggling to think of a way to open this sermon I looked over at facebook and noticed how many of my football players as their main picture on their profile, had different shots of the season. It's easy to say that even three or so months after the season is over, winning the state championship is still very much a part of the lives of those boys, and probably always will be, and they worked so hard. But as I was procrastinating and looking through their pictures, with this scripture passage running through my mind, I couldn't help but see the connection. In my ten seasons of coaching, looking back on them all, the good seasons and the seasons that were absolute struggles, one thing is certain, that though talent is a big part of success, it is not the only part. I've coached teams that were much more talented than this team, but one major thing separated our championship season from all the others, and it wasn't talent, it was trust, and we grew into it. It wasn't there at the beginning.
Much like Paul is describing in this passage about the church, a football team counts on varied talent. It does no good to have all 11 of the same player. You need fast players, big players, leaders, followers, aggressive players, creative players, players who do what they are told, and others who can go beyond and apply teachings and make their own decisions in an immediate situation. Too much of one type, and any omission of one of these types and success is hard to come by, even impossible. The other truth I've learned as well is even if you have all the roles covered, without trust you're sunk.
If this year our team over achieved, which we did, two years ago we underachieved. The talent of the two teams was very similar, and one could certainly argue that the team we had two years ago had more talent, but that team did not even make the playoffs. We had a number of great players, six or seven of them are playing in college, one started for Clemson in the Peach Bowl a few weeks ago, but two years ago that team lacked leadership, and from lack of leadership we never grew the needed trust. All the players began to try to do each other's jobs, and they let their own slip. They did not trust that the other could do it. The guard was covering for the tackle, the fullback wanted to be the tailback, the tailback wanted to be a receiver, and the receivers wanted to be playing basketball, so with all the talent in the world, and roughly the same coaching as this past season we ended 5-4, missing the playoffs by one game and a half point. This season we focused on each position player doing his job, and were successful, but I have to ask the question, which came first the success or the trust? Or did it happen together a little bit at a time because there were moments throughout this season where I thought, uh oh, here is where it falls apart, here is where we start losing it, here is when we lose trust in each other, here is where the players all wish to be ball carriers, where now were the blockers, or here is where all receivers want to be quarterbacks, where now were the receptions, or as Paul wrote, "if the whole body were the eyes then "where were the hearing."
Yes that is the King James Version of verse 17. Where were it? I loved it so much I made it the title of this sermon, "Where were hear here?" In other words, where do we all fit in here? What are our roles? Does everyone have one? What are they?  Does everyone have a place? Has everyone found their place? What is it like here? We're not all eyes, but we're all something.
Now I have heard tons and tons of sermons on this topic through the years, and I knew it wasn't just me. Most weeks go by when at least one person at school asks me what I am planning on preaching on, and this week was no different. Each time, though, this week, when I mentioned the scripture, talking about how we are all parts of one body the church, everyone knew exactly what I was talking about, and behind their eyes was the little eye roll that said, "yes I've heard that before." It is a common sermon topic, because there is never a year goes by where a church is not looking for volunteers for something, and this passage seems to speak to that very exact and constant need, and we are no different. We need folks to help. We need everyone to find their place, and fulfill a role, large and small, eyes, ears, feet, hands, minds, hearts, etc., but what do I say new? How do I make such a familiar passage new and fresh, inspiring and effective?
I started by thinking about the body parts. How do they work together? Is there anything important and symbolic behind the idea of ears, eyes, noses, hands, and feet? Is it that they are all extremities, is it that they are all sensory centers? Did Paul choose those as metaphors because they are our filters for new sensory information? Think about it, seeing, smelling, and hearing, all go without saying, but think about if you want to feel something, you use your hands, and if you don't feel like bending down you use your feet, so we got all that covered, but what about tasting? Why not the mouth? Wouldn't the body of Christ need a mouth, too? Is there something significant about that omission, I remember something about how it is the things that come out of the mouth that defile, and so we don't really need that defiling mouth in the church. What does that say then about preachers? It may say something about the proper length of the sermon at the least.
But seriously, if only for a minute, how do you know what body part you are, or are you supposed to just leave the metaphor at the point where you just realize that we all have different gifts and leave it at that. I wasn't sure, so like I do I tried to put my thoughts in rhyme and see where it would lead. It's a spiritual discipline I've done for some years, it's more of a brainstorming tool than a real exercise in poetics, but sometimes it works. I think it did this time, especially because it took a turn that I hadn't expected. Take a look, what came out of it became the Prayer of Preparation. I started with a question, added the requirement of meter and rhyme, and then let the meaning go where it willed. Let's look at it:

Lord, am I a foot or a finger? Am I an eye or an ear?
I think that I can, but my doubts give me fear.
My tongue and my hand I could sever today:
Is it my heart or my head that pushes you away?
My eyes look to others, who seem so well built,
But I look back on my life with regret, and find guilt.
I asked you please Lord to show me my worth,
And your star led to Bethlehem to witness a birth.

Okay, you may be saying to yourself, I like the rhymes it sounds good, I like that he ended with Christ, but what in the world is he talking about? How did you get from here, eyes, feet, and fingers,  to Bethlehem? How do I know that is what you are asking, I don't, but that is what I asked myself when I was done. I wondered why did the words lead there? You may be thinking, you should know, shouldn't you, I mean you wrote it, if not you then who would know? That's the crazy thing about adding rhymes and rhythmic requirements to words, they seem to take their own life, and go their own direction. I've always been in awe of how many times I've tried to write a story in prose that goes no where, and then add rhyme to it and it takes new life beyond any plans I could make. So I have to afterwards try to make sense out of it, try to get an understanding about what it is saying, what I was saying, as if I were a reader and not a writer. One of my favorite songwriters, Townes Van Zandt said once that he didn't write his songs, at least not the good ones, he was just there to collect them and pass them on. I think I know what he was trying to say.
So I look at this poem, asking myself in the first line, "What am I?" What are my gifts? In line with Paul's metaphor, am I a foot a finger, an eye or an ear, this was the planned starting point from which I would go where the words led. . . Then I had the word fear, knew I could rhyme it with ear, but how to get there? Isn't fear at the heart of my problem with, knowing who I am? Where is my place? What are my skills? Do I have enough faith? What about my doubts are they okay? Hmmm and commitment can I really do this can I fit it in? What does the future hold? These are some common fears, are they our fears? are they your fears? only you know. . . Then the poem shifts to the source of those doubts, and I wanted to return to the body part theme because perhaps I had moved too far afield, and that was where I started. But now it's not about being used as a body part of the church, but how our body can separate us, again as the source of doubt and fear. Christ said, if your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off, and it is our tongue that defiles, but then in the next line you have the heart and the head getting in the way, which is the source of our fear, is it our talent, our doubt, our heart or our head. Is it that we feel we can't do, or that we think we can't do? or are afraid that others think we can't do? Possibly. . . but where do we get the sense that we are not good enough, is it that we look to other people, do we see others who are doing and get intimidated by them, by their talent, by their piety, by their perceived relationship with Christ, do we fear that we don't measure up on our own because we are not like them, and have different talents? . . . Have we been doing other things? Are the things we have done, and the people we have been stumbling blocks for who we are, what we can become, and what we have to give? . . . So then the poem prays to God, and so we pray for God to show us within us why we can do it? why we are worthy? Why we should care, why we should give, why we should serve? Where our talent comes from, and of course he doesn't show us ourselves, he doesn't show us anything within ourselves, he doesn't show us our skills, he doesn't show us our accomplishments, he doesn't show us, not us at all, he points toward a new star on the horizon, that stands above not a palace, but a humble stable, where our reason for being was born into this world, where our worthiness is created, and our purpose became. And we remember the source. Christ in us and us in Christ, and all things are possible. The logistics disappear, the doubts fall apart, and the excuses, and all that is left is you and Christ, and he will direct your path if you are willing to follow.
So that was my poem, and I began this with sermon with the need for trust. At the center of that trust is our trust in Christ. That Christ is working within us, and that Christ is calling us to serve with and for him. This is the beginning of our trust. It is a crucial starting place. Without it there isn't a whole lot of purpose, and without it we don't have the tools to achieve that purpose, but instead all of the possibility and potential flows from that trust. The second piece of the trust is to believe, not only that Christ has called you, but also that Christ has called others, and this is sometimes just as hard. It always takes more faith to believe that someone else can serve and fill a role, especially when their style is different, especially when their skills are different, especially when their understanding of things are different, but it is essential to trust that Christ is working in them as well. May Christ help us to see and to trust.
I've tasked the new session members to work hard to get help and to function as committees rather than doing everything themselves. It's harder that way, but at the end we are a stronger church because more people are involved. We are not just all eyes heading in one direction without being able to hear what surrounds us. We have the depth and diversity to function as a community of Christ's servants.

Take a look at the Committees as they are outlined in the bulletin insert.
(Briefly introduce each one, especially the new ones. . . )

·         Buildings and Grounds

·         Fellowship

·         Worship & Inreach

·         Mission & Outreach

·         Christian Education

·         Finance

 Then allow Christ to lead you. He will. In the next few weeks the elders may contact you, prayerfully consider their request, or better yet, before they do, go to them. Come forward with an idea. There is much we all have to offer, and the reasons for not doing so, will fall to the wayside as each new star rises in the east. Amen.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (1 Co 12:12-31). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Sunday, January 20, 2013


A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
January 20, 2013
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
John 2:1-11 

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

The Wedding at Cana
2 On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. 2 Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. 3 When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” 4 And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” 5 His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” 6 Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. 7 Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. 8 He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. 9 When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom 10 and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” 11 Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him. [1]  

So I started this week by doing some research on this text. One of the cool parts about preaching from the lectionary is that everybody else is preaching from it, so there are tons of articles and sermons all on the topic, right there for you all in one place. One of the not so cool parts about preaching from the lectionary is that everybody else is preaching from it, and from what I've seen so far, most of the ideas that collected on the Lectionary Sites on the internet are so tired, boring, played, obvious, insert your own adjective, in short lame. For the last three weeks I've been completely underwhelmed by what I've seen. Ok, so for today, for the Wedding at Cana, at first I had to wade through a debate over whether drinking alcohol is a sin or not. It is funny watching people proof text the same passage to make a case for  their opposite agendas. Non drinkers downplaying the wine by saying it was cultural and that the water was undrinkable, and drinkers saying if Jesus drank, I can drink. Next I waded through tons of them making awkward transitions to Martin Luther King Day tomorrow, or President Obama's Inauguration, everything from Mary being like Rosa Parks, to Wedding s being a new beginning, and I even saw a person make the claim that the saving the best for last line from the text, you know the “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now,”  that, that line is proof that President Obama's second term will be that much better than his first. I've tried to stay away from political statements, but from a purely Biblical Interpretation standpoint, that's a bit of a stretch, and maybe stretch is an understatement. I mean it said water into wine not water into kool-aid. Sorry I thought of that line and just couldn't resist.
Without much help there, my idea had to come from the text, and a conversation I had a few months ago with my friend Jerry King. He posed the question to me in the conversation, "Do you think most people would want to invite Jesus to a party?" and you see in this passage, there it is verse 2, "Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding." So they're not just crashing, they are not just passing through, they are not just on their way somewhere else. They are invited to this wedding. It seems to me a very important question and a challenging question, especially when I put myself in with that category of most people. Do most people want to invite Jesus to their party? Would I want to invite Jesus to a party? Would I want to be invited to a party where Jesus is? Maybe we'd like to send him an invitation because we feel obligated, but do we  really want him to come?
There was a Seinfeld where Elaine received this wedding invitation from a woman who had been a rival/friend for quite some time. They had known each other from high school, and the friend was a cheerleader, and a homecoming queen, etc., and Elaine and her had this face to face friendship, but a behind the back resentment, hatred, and animosity, type thing going on. So there is this one episode where this woman, Sue Ellen Mishki is getting married, but she is getting married in India, so she invites Elaine to it. In perfect Seinfeld form Elaine obsesses over and talks about this invitation again and again to Jerry, firing each other up, convinced that the invitation is a, well I'll send her an invitation, knowing she won't come all the way to India. They have pet names for everything. This they call  a Nonvitation, so Elaine ends up going to the wedding, traveling all the way in India, purely out of spite.
So I made that the title of this sermon, "Nonvitation." Would we really want Jesus to come to our party? The answer of this question says a lot about us because it says a lot about who Jesus is to us. The real question is, do you think of Jesus as a buzz kill, or as someone who'd be constantly giving you that eye, you know the judging eye that looks deep in your soul and makes you think twice about what you are doing, no matter what it is, it can't be right, and then here comes the guilt, rolling on in. Would you get nervous around Jesus? Would you feel like you just couldn't relax because, I mean, hey it's Jesus? Would you feel you'd need to put on airs? Wear nicer clothes? Be on your best behavior? Only talk about "God" topics? Or maybe feel like you'd have to brush up on your Bible Trivia? Would you think you'd be constantly studying for some test? Would you be trying to see if you'd somehow measure up, competing with others over who can be the most pious, the most "good," the most helpful to him? Would an impromptu competition erupt, over who can love their neighbor the best? Would you be concerned that the party would have to revolve around him? Would that make you jealous? Would it be possible to have a party where Jesus is not the center of attention?
Let's put a new spin on it, just to help to illustrate the point, so it's not a wedding, it's not just a regular party, it's a Super Bowl Party. Could you have Jesus come to your Super Bowl party, and still watch the game? or would that be way too worldly, way too much of the world, and you'd want to show Jesus how "not of this world you are."  Could you still comment with your friends over which commercial is best? Could you still lay a friendly wager, maybe do the dollar a square matrix pool for the score at the end of each quarter? Hmmm I wonder. . .
What do you think? Would you? Would those questions enter your mind? Why is that? Why do we feel that way about Jesus? Is it biblical to think that way?
Well this is the beginning of Jesus' ministry. It is the beginning of John's gospel. Chapter one includes John's prologue, and John the Baptist making claims about who Jesus is, then Jesus recruits some disciples, and the next thing  you know he's here at this wedding. His turning the water into wine is his first public miracle. If first impressions are important, then we may be missing something thinking like we do because here is Jesus invited to a party, and he doesn't kill the party but rather enhances it. He doesn't distract from the party, but leaves people fulfilled and full of life. He doesn't just transform water into wine, but he transforms a lot of water into a lot of wine: "six stone jars, each holding twenty or thirty gallons." I'm not great at math, but if we go with the low figure that is 120 gallons of wine, and with the high number its 180 gallons of wine. Now I don't know how many people are at this wedding, but no matter how you slice it that is a lot of wine. Just think about it, even if there was 100 people at the wedding that is more than a gallon of wine a piece. That's not a good party that is a dangerous party. And it's not just wine it's really good wine, according to the steward. He even compliments the bridegroom about the quality upgrade that Jesus brings to the party. Compliments the bridegroom, not Jesus. Could Jesus have done this not for attention, not to be the center of the party, but so the bridgegroom got the credit. Only those close to Jesus are in the know. And the passage closes with: "Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him." That was some party, this guy is the truth, but only the disciples knew.
It is interesting that there is not a scene anywhere in the Gospels where Jesus breaks up a party. I even challenge you to find a scene in the Gospels where Jesus makes people around him feel nervous, or agitated. You do see some scenes where the disciples are posturing, fighting over Jesus' attention or approval, but Jesus always quickly tells them they are wrong for feeling that way. Jesus doesn't stop gatherings, he brings life to them, whether it's turning water into wine, or feeding multitudes. So why do we feel apprehensive about inviting Jesus to our party?
It's interesting, there is an example of Jesus breaking up a group of folks and challenging what they are doing, but it's not a party, it's a temple, it's a house of God, it's a church, and wouldn't you know it, in John's Gospel it is the very next story. John 2:12-25

13 The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. 15 Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” 17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” 18 The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” 19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20 The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” 21 But he was speaking of the temple of his body. 22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken. 

Now here is the interesting part, another party and people believe. The Passover festival, check it out.  

23 When he was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing. 24

Signs at the party, people believe, but not at the temple. And then the story concludes:

But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people 25 and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone. [2]

 Jesus already knows, so we really have nothing to hide. Do you hear that? Hiding from Jesus is futile. He already knows, and he still wants to come to the party, so why would we not invite him? Why do we feel like Jesus would judge us and give us that eye? Why do we feel like Jesus would kill the mood with only "God" talk, only that which is high brow, stuffy, and proper? Is that how Jesus is or is that how church is? Do we see Jesus that way because that is the way we do church, or maybe it's not always like that, but sometimes it can be like that? Is that how church can be? Does church have that tendency? We may say no to each other, but the prevailing view from an ever widening majority of non church goers may disagree. It is possible that they are simply misinformed, but what are we doing to challenge their notion?
I talked last week about Christ being the head of the church, reminding and challenging the elders that the decisions that they make are not to be based on their own ideas and agendas, but rather on trying to discern the will of Christ. The idea that Christ, not any of us, is the head of the church,  one could understand this to mean  that Church is Christ's party, and we are invited to it, to be a part of it, to be inspired and transformed by it. He changed water into wine, what will he change us into? What will he transform this church into, the temple that took forty six years to build, and that he destroyed, and then raised in three days, his body?
We've been asking the wrong question this whole time. I've been asking would we want to invite Jesus to our party, a better question would be, are we willing to go to his?


[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Jn 2:1-11). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[2]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Jn 2:13-25). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

No Other

No Other
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
January 13, 2013
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Acts 8: 14-24 

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

14 Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. 15 The two went down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit 16 (for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus). 17 Then Peter and John laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit. 18 Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, 19 saying, “Give me also this power so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.” 20 But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain God’s gift with money! 21 You have no part or share in this, for your heart is not right before God. 22 Repent therefore of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. 23 For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and the chains of wickedness.” 24 Simon answered, “Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may happen to me.”[1]  

Today is an exciting day in the life of the church. Today we install the new ruling elders, who have answered the call to lead, and today they begin that journey. Two of our newly elected officers are new elders, so today we also get the unique opportunity to witness an ordination, how appropriate that we do so on this day of the church calendar where traditionally is celebrated the Baptism of Christ and the beginning of his ministry with us on Earth. And on this second Sunday of my new discipline of preaching according to the Lectionary, I got to make a choice. The way that the Lectionary works is that there are four readings. Typically there is a selection from the Old Testament, a Selection from the Psalms, a Selection from the Gospel, and then another from the New Testament outside the gospels. The calling passage from Isaiah, proclaiming God's ever presence with those whom he chooses to call, certainly appropriate for today's special service. But then I had a choice. The Gospel Reading was Luke's account of the Baptism of Jesus by John, but I was strangely intrigued by this more obscure story from Acts.
There are a couple of aspects of the story that grabbed my attention. The first was the thought that the baptism of these folks was not sufficient, on one hand, and then the man Simon's attempt to buy the power, of giving the Holy Spirit. I thought that these two aspects of the story are very important for us to look at today, because it offers a reminder to who is really in control, who is in charge, who does the calling, who does the commissioning, who does the ordaining, whose mission we are on, and most importantly whose church this is. These reminders are central to the business of today, and are easy to miss in the rituals and the roles that we play, easy to forget as we get bogged down in the business of church. For those called to lead, it is easy to lose sight of in the heat of the battle, in the hard days of service, on those days when we are frustrated by the process and the slowness of progress, the long meetings, when the temptation to go our own way and "get things done" is strong. It is easy to lose sight of the fact that it is Christ who is in charge. It is Christ who calls us, and it is Christ whose will is to be done.
But let's look at the story. It is an interesting one. It is an away game for the apostles because conversion, or at least something like it, is going on in Samaria. Phillip had been preaching there for a while, ever since Saul had been persecuting the Christians in Jerusalem, he hasn't had his big change of heart and name yet, that is the next story after this one. So Phillip has been in Samaria, and has called in reinforcements because he was having such success. Now remember what Samaria is, and what it represents. Remember all the Good Samaritan sermons you have heard, and remember that Samaritans were hated by the Jews. They were seen as turn coats, sell outs, compromisers, and as such blasphemers. People who would leave tradition and make peace with the occupiers, folks who had cooperated with the enemy. And now they had, as the text says, "accepted the word of God." But when John and Peter got to them they found that there was still something missing. Though they had been baptized, they were only baptized in the name of Jesus, and as yet the Holy Spirit had not come to them. More had to be done.
Now this can be troubling for folks in the Reformed tradition, mostly because we only believe in doing one baptism. Now here it seems that, that one baptism is not sufficient, as the text says because it was "done only in the name of Jesus Christ." What does this mean, to be baptized only in the name of Christ? Does it mean in name only, and so not in the totality of Christ? Sure there seems to be a distinction there, but how could you ever know? What would it look like to only be baptized in the name and not in the totality of Christ. There is a clue in the text here, and that is that apparently at least one thing is missing in the people. . . the holy spirit. How does that happen?
Let's look back at the text here, because there is more to this story, some clues to the idea of Christ in name only, and there also is this guy Simon, who gets chastised by Peter. The earlier part of the story gives us a glimpse at just who this guy, Simon is. Here is the beginning, starting back at Acts 8:4:
4 Now those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word. 5 Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah to them. 6 The crowds with one accord listened eagerly to what was said by Philip, hearing and seeing the signs that he did, 7 for unclean spirits, crying with loud shrieks, came out of many who were possessed; and many others who were paralyzed or lame were cured. 8 So there was great joy in that city.  

So we get a glimpse of Philip and his ministry. There are healings, exorcisms, crowds all together listening eagerly, and finally great joy. It certainly seems like a gospel like encounter. There are stories of people encountering Jesus in the Gospels that are at least parallel to what is going on here, but the story continues. 
9 Now a certain man named Simon had previously practiced magic in the city and amazed the people of Samaria, saying that he was someone great. 10 All of them, from the least to the greatest, listened to him eagerly, saying, “This man is the power of God that is called Great.”  

Hmm there is something here. At least there seems to be a pattern of behavior for these folks. Strange man comes to town, performs wonders, every one listens intently, or as it says both times, eagerly. Even the words the adverbs are repeated, that the people "listened to him eagerly." The parallel caused me to look to the original Greek word. In both it is the same "Prosecho," which can mean listen eagerly, but it can also mean take heed, and can mean to attach or moor yourself to as a ship attaches itself to a dock. Now here are these folks, seemingly attaching themselves to each new teaching that comes along. But if you look at the chronology of the story, the encounter with Simon and the people listening eagerly happens before them listening to Philip, so why bring it up here, unless it is significant, and you want to show how wishy washy the people are. Flip flopping to whoever comes to preach. Let's continue on.
11 And they listened eagerly [ there is that word again, "prosecho"] to him because for a long time he had amazed them with his magic.  

So if you can do some magic, you can get these guys to follow. Do you see it, these folks are attracted to the wonders and the actions, and they are connected to the person who stands in front of them doing these things, but they do not have a real insight about who or what is the source.
12 But when they believed Philip, who was proclaiming the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. 13 Even Simon himself believed. After being baptized, he stayed constantly with Philip and was amazed when he saw the signs and great miracles that took place. [2]  

It is at this point that our passage begins, when Peter and John show up and pray that the Holy Spirit will come to these people. But look at Simon, he believes, and he attaches himself to Philip, amazed at the signs and great miracles. "He stayed constantly with Philip." What is he waiting for? What does he want to see? Is he seeking a relationship with Christ? At this point in the story we don't know, but since we read the rest of the story earlier we have a glimpse of his real motivation. . . because John and Peter show up, and they say a prayer, lay their hands on the people and the Holy Spirit comes down on them. And then Simon, this guy Simon, we get a glimpse at his heart. Can I get some of that action? He seems to say, Can I become a bestower of the Holy Spirit, too?
Isn't it interesting that he doesn't ask for the Holy Spirit to descend upon himself, but rather to have the power to give the Holy Spirit to others? He has no interest in relating with Jesus himself, he has no interest in being transformed himself. He wants to transform others. He wants to be a wielder of power. He wants to lead people, but not in the name of Christ, who he does not know, or care to know, but in his own name. The story introduces him as a magician. He is from the ancient Pagan tradition. He is not up for submitting to Christ, instead he is out for control. He wants control. He is interested in Christ, sure, at least he is captivated by the possibility and by the power, it seems that he is drawn to it, but here we see his real motivation. It is to control it, he sees it as a commodity that can be bought and sold. So rather understanding it, he wants to buy it. He wants to by that which is freely given. Oh Simon, Simon. . .
Now why was I drawn to this story? Why do I feel that it is important to us to hear this morning as we install and ordain our new leaders? I think it is important for them to hear, and also us to hear anew that it is not us who are in charge, but Christ. This very fact is the central truth of this story. There are miracles in this story, there is magic in this story, there are hungry souls searching in this story, there is great potential for conversion in this story, but we also get an important glimpse at how quickly it can all be misinterpreted, how easily it can be corrupted, how easy it is to miss the source for the messengers, how easy it is to trivialize the true source of the transformation. The power is not in Philip, the power is not in John and Peter, the power is not in the words, not in the rituals, not in the laying on of hands, not even in the name of Jesus, if it were Simon could have bought it, for all of that stuff is cheap, but instead the power is in the totality and the person of Christ. If Christ is not present, if the Holy Spirit is not moving, the actions themselves are empty, and insufficient.
So today we will perform a ritual, we will lay hands on Kane and Lizbeth, ordaining them as officers in the church, as Ruling Elders. And years ago when Nancy became an Elder in the Presbyterian Church, it was the same for her. Today is the confirmation of their call to serve, and though we elected them, and though we nominated them, it is not us who calls them, nor is it us they serve. Elders in the Presbyterian Church do not function like elected officials in the United States Congress, which is certainly a good thing judging how well congress is working these days. They are not the representatives of the congregation, ruling based on popular opinion. The members of this Church are not their constituents, from whom they form their understanding of how to make decisions, nor do they represent themselves and their own agendas. They serve this church as representatives of Christ, called by Christ, serving Christ, and beholden only to Christ. Christ and no other, not power, not money, not personal agendas, not popularity, not what is practical, not what sustains the church, not what will grow the church at all cost, at the center of their call is the principle: not my will be done, but thine.
Otherwise we serve Christ in name only, and we like Simon are simply trying to buy empty authority, misunderstanding the source and the true value and import of our calling to serve, and Peter's rebuke rings a little too close to home:

21 You have no part or share in this, for your heart is not right before God. 22 Repent therefore of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. 23 For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and the chains of wickedness.”[3]

We are not perfect. We may falter. We may fail. We in ourselves are not worth, but in Christ all things are possible, and in Christ only is anything possible. May Christ bless this his Church with the leadership of his servants Nancy, Lizbeth, and Kane, and may their relationship with Christ grow in the years to come as they walk a new and wonderful path of called leadership. Amen.



[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Ac 8:14-24). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[2]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Ac 8:4-13). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[3]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Ac 8:20-23). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Sunday, January 6, 2013


A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
January 6, 2013
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Isaiah 60:1-6
Matthew 2:1-12 

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

2 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
6     ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.’ ”
7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” 9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. [1] 

So I decided that I would try and be disciplined for a while and try to preach from the lectionary, and so that begins today. One of the cool aspects of preaching from the Lectionary is that you enter the Biblical Passage without any real preconceived notions about what you want to say, and allow yourself to be led by the passage. Though I have followed patterns before, it was always me deciding the pattern. So as I was reading the passage for today, and the connection of it to the Old Testament reading from Isaiah, one word kept coming to my mind, and so I decided that I would base this sermon on that word, and the different ways it fits this story. It's kinda like the Wallace Stevens poem "13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" or Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself" when he describes a blade of grass from every single possible angle and point of view. So here goes, the word that kept coming to me in description of the Wise Men, their encounter and also Isaiah's prophetic description of their part in the Christmas Story is "Outside."
Yes, Outside. I know it's not a very high level word, it's not edgy, it's not overly exciting, it's not even a typical Church type word. I can hear people saying now, "come on couldn't you have picked love, I mean you're always typically so hung up on love. Or sin, maybe  you can repeat the darkness of last week's sermon, or salvation. Wouldn't that make for a better message?" I was even thinking myself, speaking to my mind's inspiration, "Really, outside, can't I come up with something a little more interesting?" But no, I couldn't turn it off. Two major connections kept coming to my mind, and I kept thinking that these two connections encapsulated the new insight I wanted to bring out of this very old and very familiar story.
Most people when they think about the wisemen they go one of two different directions. They either talk about the gifts, the gold, the frankincense, and the myrrh, or they go straight to the other main character in this passage, the villain, Herod. If you go with the gifts, then you may share some historical insight about the meaning of Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh, for instance that Gold is a gift for royalty, incense a gift for religious ceremony, and myrrh an oil used for anointing, then making the connection that the gifts are the precursors for the doctrine of Christ and the Three fold office, Christ as King, Christ as Prophet, and Christ as Priest. Or if you focus on Herod, you may say something about the harshness of the world that Christ is born into, or the corruption of the Roman/Jewish state of Palestine, or like I did a year ago, make a connection of the escape from Bethlehem, to Egypt, and our need to symbolically leave Bethlehem as well, that just as Christ grows toward Easter, so must we. I've heard those sermons before.
So outside. The two insights that came to me are connected to this idea of outside. Number one, is that the wisemen themselves are outsiders, and in order to be a part of the story they had to look outside of their already substantial wealth of wisdom and body of knowledge. So one way of looking at the story of the wisemen is that is a story of outsiders being invited in, and insiders being called out. Let's look at these two ideas in order.
Outsiders being invited in. One of the major aspects of the book of Isaiah is his prophecies concerning the nations. Israel in Old Testament times, and you could say like it is today, was surrounded by many powerful nations. Isaiah as a prophet includes in his book, many descriptions of what the unique situations of these nations are, all in the chapters between 13 and 27. He shares prophecies regarding Babylon in chapters 13, then shifts to Assyria in chapter 14, then Philistia, Moab, Syria, Ethiopia, Egypt, Elam (which we know as Persia), Media, Edom, Arabia, and finally the city of Tyre. Isaiah seems to suggest that the Lord God is seated in judgment over those nations, too, even though they do not know, nor worship, this God of the Israelites. There is a sense that God is not just God of  a tribe, but God of all of humanity, it's just that some folks are living on the outside. There is comfort in those words for a nation like Israel, awash in a sea of geo - political uncertainty, that the God who has delivered them through the ages also has power over the other bigger, richer, and stronger nations that threaten Israel's very existence.
It's comforting on one hand, at least for the Israelites on the inside, but what about those brought to judgment who have not be introduced to the God who is their judge. This type of truth is often troubling. Which is why the claims of Isaiah 60, which was our Old Testament reading for today, and the presence of the Wisemen in the birth narrative are so remarkable. Look at those first three verses of Isaiah 60:

Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
2     For darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory will appear over you.
3     Nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn. 

Nations shall come to your light, not only will they be brought within the judgment of God, but can be brought into the salvation as well. This new revelation, this new light, is for Gentiles as well. There is more to the Lord God, than was originally thought. And so in the beginning of Matthew, the first to acknowledge the birth of Jesus, the birth of the Messiah are gentiles, outsiders, symbolic of outsiders being not left on the outside, but invited in. The circle of salvation grows exponentially on day one of Jesus' life.
Ok, now that brings me to the other side of this story. The inside being called out. Now one thing is certainly clear, that it is only in Christian hindsight that you could say that the Israelites are on the inside and that the rest of those nations are the outside because the rest of those nations had everything that screams about worldly success. They had wealth, they had power, they had armies, they had wonders, like the hanging gardens of Babylon, the Pyramids of Egypt, not included in Isaiah's list, but jumping forward to the time of Christ's birth, they certainly were those same Nations, you could include the Coliseum of Rome and the Parthenon of Athens. All of these nations had one thing in common. They were all empires, seats of power, authority and oppression, and they each in turn conquer the lands of the Israelites, but unlike most conquered peoples, the Israelites maintained their identity. But was it an identity that anyone else, especially one of the people of these powerful empires would want to take for their own?
I talked last week about the Romans believing that they had it all figured out, and they did, but all empires feel that way. All empires feel that their knowledge is complete, I mean hey it helped them conquer the world. Scientists, religious leaders, and politicians are the worst at thinking like this. They all claim perfect knowledge because extra knowledge challenges their power, the structures and systems that they have built to consolidate their rule. New knowledge is a threat. Look at Herod if you want another example, and Herod could see himself as on the inside of this whole Jewish Spiritual Prophetic thing. I said scientist, religious leaders, and politicians. Isn't it interesting the words that we use to describe these three star followers that find their way manger side bearing gifts. Wisemen (scientists), Magi (religious leaders), Kings (politicians). These are the movers and shakers in the nations who are movers and shakers. You can't get any more inside than them, but then a star new rises, a new star shines, a new star beckons, a new star calls. And the new star says to them, "everything you thought you knew is incomplete, everything you thought you knew falls short, everything you thought you knew is wrong, here is the truth, follow this star, and learn about real truth, learn about real power, and learn about what it means to worship, bow down, and submit. Think outside of your preconceived notions, think outside of everything you've been taught, think outside of everything you have observed up to this point, because this new star defies your charts, defies your sense of direction, defies your sense of place, defies your notions of north, east, south, and west, which you thought you could gauge by the stars, those immovable constant stars. Look again, open your eyes, this is epiphany. What you thought was the inside is the outside, and what you thought was outside is inside, come in out of the darkness and into the light." And they did, they followed, they left what they had, they travelled across the desert, perhaps on camels, American poet T.S. Eliot imagines their journey in this way:

'A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.'
And the camels galled, sore-footed,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and
And running away, and wanting their
     liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the
     lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns
And the villages dirty and charging high
A hard time we had of it.
It's not easy to be called, and to follow a star. It changes your life. It changes your life to be on the outside and be called in. And in the end this is what epiphany is about: change. The definition of epiphany is "a sudden, intuitive perception of or insight into reality, usually initiated by some simple, homely, or commonplace occurrence or experience." Yes that is it, another way of saying it is like Isaiah says it "arise your light has come," another way of saying it is "Follow me," another is "Noah I want you to build me an ark", another way is "Your sins are forgiven," another is "I want you to go to pharaoh and say to him Let my People Go,"  another way is "Rise take up your mat and walk," Another is "Do not be afraid," another is "You will know my name is the Lord,"  another is "I will be with you until the end of the age." Another is "I have known you since before you were born," Another is "now you will be fisher's of men." It is call, and there are many ways that it happens. No two are the same, but there is one repeated response to the call, and that is the Hebrew word, Hineni. Here I am. Take a look at the call of Abraham, look at the call of Isaac, look at the call of Jacob, look at the call of  Moses by the Burning Bush, look at the call of Samuel, look at the call of Isaiah, in all of them God speaks, often their name twice, like Abraham, Abraham, and then there are the words, "Here I am." It is there every time. It even makes its way into the New Testament, Hebrews 10:9, then I said, "Here I am, I have come to do your will my God," and Revelation 3:20, "Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in."
Again like it was for Mary, "to be called is to be favored, to be favored is to be loved, and to be loved is to never be abandoned." The difference now is our understanding that anyone can be called. The truth that was outside of our prior understanding, and that is the common thread here is that now there is no such thing as outside. There is no such thing as outside of God's judgment, but also there is no such thing as being outside of God's favor, therefore there is no such thing as being outside of God's call, and so there is no such thing as being outside of God's community, there is no such thing as being outside of God's love. Psalm 1 states, " The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away. Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous; for the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish." Does the forgiveness of sin alter our understanding of this psalm?
The question then for us today is, where are we? Here is the issue. Many of us today are still trapped by this problem of outside verses inside. Many of us who feel we are on the inside, think we have it all figured out, and therefore are blinded to the new stars that appear on the horizon, and so we stay where we are happy about being on the inside. And others of us are so sure that we are not invited to the party, that we do not have the skills, that we are too old or too young, too tired, too infirm, too much of a sinner, too much of a checkered past, do not have enough within us to be called, we are sure that we are on the outside.  This story wipes out these distinctions, God wipes out these barriers, in a child visited by shepherds and kings, the call is made, follow me, and the invitation to of the call is extended to all, called, favored, and loved, never abandoned, it is just for us to answer Heneni, Here I am, then hop a camel, knowing that God will guide our steps, show us the way, and be with us for eternity. Amen.



[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Mt 2:1-12). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.