Sunday, May 26, 2013

Remembering: Just Because. . .

Remembering: Just Because
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
May 26, 2013
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
1 Samuel 8: 4-17
1 Corinthians 3: 16-23 

Let us pray, 

Almighty God fill our hearts with a desire for your will, fill our minds with thoughts of others, and fill our wills with your ways. As the scriptures are read and proclaimed may they bring us closer to You O God. In Christ, Amen. 

16 Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? 17 If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.
18 Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise. 19 For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written,
“He catches the wise in their craftiness,”
20     and again,
“The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise,
that they are futile.”
21 So let no one boast about human leaders. For all things are yours, 22 whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all belong to you, 23 and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God. [1]

This morning is one of those fun times in the life of the church where we commemorate two things at once, a special church occasion and a secular holiday, for today we celebrate Presbyterian Heritage Sunday, thus Tim MacLeod is here with his bagpipes, we remember our roots in the Church of Scotland, we remember our history. And also this weekend as a nation we celebrate Memorial Day, we take a look back again and remember the heroes that have fallen protecting and serving the God given freedoms that this nation strives to secure for us.  I can't think of a more appropriate combination, for the Presbyterian heritage and history is closely tied to the American ideals we claim to believe in, and Presbyterian Philosophy is intertwined with the  foundational philosophy of this nation, even our Presbyterian system provided the framework for the American Constitution, James Madison having been trained and taught in his youth by Presbyterian educators at Princeton so long ago. This morning I want to shed a little light on that story so that we can remember who we've been and hopefully inspire us to be more than we are. And I want to tell the story just because it is my favorite story, my favorite sequence of historical events, other than of course the event that makes these possible, important, and real. . . The life death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The story of Reformation and its connection to the ideals of the United States on her best day. I hope that it inspires us both as Presbyterians and as Americans to live up to our historic values.  
After Jesus' resurrection and ascension, and then the gift of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost and the birthday of the church, the disciples tried to do their best to spread the gospel throughout the Roman Empire, but over the course of the next 300 plus years they went through periods of oppression, the type of oppression where people were often killed for being Christian, yet Christianity did spread, and many people became faithful martyrs, dying in witness for the truth of the gospel in horrific scenes of cruelty and violence. Then Christianity had spread so much, that it became part of the framework of the Roman Empire, so much so that the Emperor Constantine decided to convert. Constantine has a famous vision of seeing a Cross in a dream, hearing a voice say you will conquer under this sign, and Christianity becomes indelibly linked for the first time to real earthly temporal power, but it's hard to tell whether Constantine sees Christianity as a new religion or just a new pagan religion, does Constantine know Christ, or is Christ just another god, much like Zeus or Jupiter, just more powerful, nevertheless, Christianity takes a very strong turn, and Christendom is created. Christianity goes from being a faith, a religion, a philosophy, a world view, a relationship with God through Christ into being a realm. It becomes tied to politics and for the next 1900 plus years kings will use it to consolidate their wealth and power. It was soon after the fall of the Roman empire in the 600's when the first of the germanic tribal chiefs, the Frankish chief Clovis, became Baptized by the Pope, converting to Christianity and then having the Pope crown him king. All of a sudden the church again is tied to those secular powers, or still, but I've often asked the question of history, was Clovis a true convert, coming to know Christ, having a personal relationship with Christ, for his actions are far from those described in the sermon on the mount, they actually are more similar to the description from 1 Samuel 8, just like Constantine, it's hard to tell the difference between them before with their pagan beliefs and after with their so called Christian beliefs, can we judge them based on their fruits?
And kings aren't the only ones. Popes, Bishops, Priests, Monks, Friars, they also used Christianity to consolidate their wealth and power. They change doctrine, they conceal parts of the Bible, they promise salvation in exchange for all types of things, from money, to military service, to trading of church offices, and political favors, they do what they want, when they want, while manipulating by preaching restriction and fear and obedience. It is almost as if the powers that be were more effective in squelching the true teachings of Christ by adopting them than they ever were at open persecution and executions, but that very truth is biblical, sometimes the "easy, safe, secure way" is not the best. Look at our Old Testament lesson. The Israelites want a king, basically for two reasons, 1. everybody else has one and 2. he would offer us greater security from outside. But Samuel warns them saying:

“These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; 12 and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. 15 He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. 16 He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. 17 He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves.[2]  

Sometimes what you want is not what you get. Christianity is saved, it grows, it is protected, but in so many ways it becomes exploited just like Samuel says the Israelites will be. Power is a dangerous thing, even for a religion, or maybe especially for a religion. We still are paying the price for it today.
In my World Literature class, we talk about how the Medieval Catholic Church, in Western Europe anyway, the old western Roman Empire now fallen, had a monopoly on the teachings of Christ. That there was no way of getting to Jesus except through the church, there were no other options. People could not divide the two, even in their minds, there just is no concept of God, no concept of Jesus outside the big "C" Church. It is not until the Renaissance that this monopoly is challenged. As education, literacy, and translations of the Bible begin being made available to people, this monopoly on the teachings get challenged on the biblical authenticity of the teachings that dominate the middle ages. I'm not saying that there are not faithful exceptions, but there is no denying the secular aspects of Christianity during the late empire and throughout the middle ages and their detriment to authentic Biblical representations of Christ. In the Renaissance, writers like Dante and Chaucer and Boccaccio begin to describe a difference between the Church, and its corruption, and God incorruptible. The monopoly begins to fall apart, but it happens slowly. (To be honest many of our protestant denominational differences have to do with how slowly these layers fall apart, or which ones should go and which ones must not go, what is the baby and what is the bath water, that old saying is often used).
From the seeds of the Renaissance and the thought that just possibly there could exist a Christ, and that the Church may be wrong in its teachings about him, comes the Reformation. And from the Reformation Presbyterianism. I want to look at two of the historic principles of the church in the light of the history I have just laid out for us. I printed them in the bulletin. These are very much my favorite and have so much to do with why I am Presbyterian, but how often do we talk about them?

F-3.0101 God Is Lord of the Conscience

a. That “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in anything contrary to his Word, or beside it, in matters of faith or worship.” 

Look at what is addressed, the historical problems addressed with that statement, and what it means. Freedom  of thought is important. There is no monopoly on truth, other than scripture. The foundations of truth are not found in an institution, but in God's Holy Word, not in human wisdom, but in divine record, not in the human beings, but in Christ, as the head of the church.
Now look at the next one, part b:

b. Therefore we consider the rights of private judgment, in all matters that respect religion, as universal and unalienable: We do not even wish to see any religious constitution aided by the civil power, further than may be necessary for protection and security, and at the same time, be equal and common to all others. 

These private judgment rights are to be universal and unalienable, and should not be aided by any civil power. No longer can the church be held up by the secular powers, because they had seen the damage possible there, that though the name Christendom grew when tied to those civil powers, at such a devastating cost. Christianity was spread, but seemingly with an altered watered down, dare I say, Pagan version of Christ.
And now the last historic principle I include: mutual forbearance. . .

F-3.0105 Mutual Forbearance

That, while under the conviction of the above principle we think it necessary to make effectual provision that all who are admitted as teachers be sound in the faith, we also believe that there are truths and forms with respect to which men of good characters and principles may differ. And in all these we think it the duty both of private Christians and societies to exercise mutual forbearance toward each other.

Not only is there not to be a monopoly on human versions of truth, but we will accept the fact that people will understand things differently and agree to be united with them anyway, that two people can be "sound in the faith," but may differ in their understandings. Throughout the middle ages, people were forced to agree, the Spanish Inquisition comes to mind, but we are dedicated to the proposition that people can think for themselves, and do not need to conform to institutional standards, but rather to conform to Christ's standards himself as interpreted from his Holy Word. There is the distinct possibility that the majority popular opinion is wrong and that the minority is in the right, and therefore should be respected, the prophets of the Old Testament come to mind. Jeremiah, Isaiah, Elijah, and many others were like John the Baptist, lone voices, wild voices, but God's voices and they were crying out from the wilderness of minority opinion, very important, Christ himself often was preaching against groups who were opposed to his way of thinking, and many of them the established religious leaders of the day. Thus the doctrine of mutual forbearance itself like the others comes directly from God's Holy Word.
So on Memorial Day we bring up this important history. I think the parallels are self evident. Religious Freedom, no official established civic support for a religion, freedom of thought, expression, etc., these are shared values between our church and our nation. The beauty of the connection is that they are parallel and not connected. It is the harder way, but history, both biblical and in our Christian Era show that it is the right way. People's minds are their own and as such gifts to them by God. Jefferson states in his Statutes on Religious Freedom for Virginia:

Well aware that the opinions and belief of men depend not on their own will, but follow involuntarily the evidence proposed to their minds; that Almighty God hath created the mind free, and manifested his supreme will that free it shall remain by making it altogether insusceptible of restraint; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments, or burthens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, who being lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do, but to extend it by its influence on reason alone;

Obviously there are some differences, but the sentiment is the same. This is but one of the connections between Presbyterianism and the philosophy of the United States. There are many more, and the very governing principles of Republicanism and Democracy, the separation of powers, checks and balances, because no one person has a monopoly on truth, no king and no religious leader, on and on, and let us not forget that both of these ideas are relatively new, Presbyterianism and the Americanism, and both are rare in the world, many would call both foolish and wisdom would say impractical and destined to fail, people can't be free, they will make the wrong decision, and destroy themselves, it doesn't seem that God thinks so, being all powerful, and fully sovereign and giving freedom, since love demands it. Wisdom would say it is a foolish experiment. Wisdom would say, power wins the day, not love, not freedom.  
Listen again to Paul's words to the church in Corinth:

16 Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? 17 If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.
18 Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise. 19 For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written,
“He catches the wise in their craftiness,”
20     and again,
“The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise,
that they are futile.”
21 So let no one boast about human leaders. For all things are yours, 22 whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all belong to you, 23 and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God. [3]

 But so what. Why is this important to know? Many people believe that it is important to know history lest ye be doomed to repeat it. I think there is truth to that, but more than that it is important to know history to know what we are capable of, both good and bad, and to know something about what humans are and should be. Two things are absolutely critical for Presbyterianism to work, and because of the similarities, for the American Republic to work. They are two of the most important aspects of Presbyterian Calvinism. The first is providence, Christ as the head of the church leading us, working in our world, actively leading us along the path according to His sovereign perfect will, and the other is that we need to care. We need to care about each other, we need to care about what is going on, we need to care.
In the Reformation, when Presbyterians got their start, they cared, and cared deeply because they knew the darkness of the night of living without the chance, when the thoughts of people didn't matter. Read the Declaration of Independence, it is written by people who cared too, and knew the oppression of Kingly singular rule, by the whims of one or few, rather than all having a voice, a mind, and a say. But we do not know that darkness first hand, at least not traditionally, both as a church and as a nation, our thoughts have always mattered, but just like the book of Judges shows, and many other evidence from history, that darkness is sometimes only a generation away. Those who came before us who we remember on this day, and this weekend, according to God's will, have protected us from that darkness, so we don't know it, and since they cared they set up a system based on the fact that people would care, care enough because their thoughts matter to think, care enough to put those ideas to work and serve as officers, care enough to support those officers, care enough to serve faithfully and honestly in elected positions, care enough to vote on whose gifts and talents can be best used for the service of Christ and His church, care enough about things not being right, that they would stand up and work to make them right, care enough that even though someone may disagree with you, that you stand up for the right for their disagreement because their thoughts matter, too. These are true of the church, and they are true of the nation. May each mutually inspire us to be better citizens and better Christians. We thank the cloud of witnesses who have protected and handed the legacy to us, may we with full reliance on the providence of God, do our best to live up to it. And remember, just because. . . we care and it matters.

May it be so.



[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (1 Co 3:16-23). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[2]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (1 Sa 8:11-17). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[3]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (1 Co 3:16-23). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Four Songs Before You Go

Four Songs Before You Go

For the 2013 Graduates of Blue Ridge School
As your high school days come to an end,
There is joy and celebration,
Most of the time is exactly that,
But often there also creeps in,
Especially in those in between times,
The more quiet times,
The moments when you find yourself alone,
Doubt, apprehension, fear, worry,
For the next steps you take you plan,
For the first time in your life you have options,
And though options are exciting,
Though freedom is life and chains are not,
There is contentment in limitation.
Limits are safe, structure soothes,
Though you've yearned to rebel,
Part of you has become sated
By the comforts of status quo,
For eighteen years is a long time
To be a child, and all you've known
For twelve of those years is now over.

But for you Barons of 2013,
In the midst of one of those moments
The quieter, somber moments,
When reflective thoughts find you,
Take a second and let this place,
Not the people but the place
The chapel of the valley,
Sing a hymn to your ears,
Caress your face with its breathing,
Let the combination of echoes
The four songs of the senses
Teach you one last time,
And send you off with truth,
For it sings anew just for you
A message never heard before
Sung now for you and your brothers,
So in that moment close your eyes
For sight's dominance must be delayed
Your eyes get their chance, but last,
This journey needs to commence
With the heightened sense of blindness.
When your eyes are closed,
The ears are first, so listen closely
Have you heard their song this week?
The cicadas sing your processional,
They too know the chains,
Closed deep in the earth,
Waiting, longing, looking ahead,
Trapped for a time, now released they sing:

"Live for now for you are free,
We are the same you and we
Our prison the dirt inside the ground
Yours the school's structured sound
But now you're out, your work is done
Your lessons learned, so go have fun
Celebrate for life is fleeting
The clock is ticking, your youth retreating,
The future you work for doesn't exist
So fill your now with every bliss
Forget it now all your work and see
This moment is the best you'll be."

 Those lyrics the cicadas sing unceasing
In their one note song, on and on,
So while you listen with your eyes still closed,
Feel the cool breeze on  your face,
As it lovingly caresses your shaven cheeks,
Whispering  a silent song just for you:

"So cool so comfortable, even in May,
Here you're safe, why don't you stay,
We made it cool just for you
It was the least that we could do
For it's us who cares, the world does not
Why want more than what you've got
You're still so young, so shy, so weak
The world out there is awful bleak
Listen to your fears, and from them shrink
You are not as ready as you think
Stay my child, stay here, stay young,
Sing our song, leave yours unsung."

So does that cool breeze seem to say
For who would want to leave here
On a gorgeous day like shines today,
But while you listen and while you feel,
Breathe in that faint smell of delayed spring,
For spring stuck around just for you.
The flowers' blooms begin to fade,
But their scent symphony remains:

"Remember how beautiful we use to be,
When rainbow colors filled were we,
And the smell of us burned your eye
Was it just the pollen that made you cry?
Or did you think you wouldn't get through
When tests were looming and papers were due?
You were right to worry, right to doubt
Right to think about bowing out
For you only made it through
By all that people did for you,
But now you go out on your own
And you'll only fail when left alone."

Now having heard that you are free,
And having felt that you were safe,
And having smelt the smell of fear,
Open your eyes, and look around you,
You'll see the dead cicadas at your feet,
For they are not like you at all,
And you'll see that the breeze
Blows out of this valley into the world as well,
And that fresh buds are ready to bloom
Refreshed to another round of challenges,
And keep looking, and notice again
The joy gleaming from your brothers' faces,
The memories mirrored in each other's eyes,
The pride shining from your teachers' glances,
And the love from your parent's smiles,
Your eyes again take their sensory lead
And they tell your brain to bravely sing:

"Today is the day where life begins
I get to walk now with my friends
We'll soak it in and we'll be proud,
Of what we've done while time allowed.
Now time moves on and we must go
Our paths diverge apart we know,
But we'll remember standing here
Arm in arm, with fears, in tears
And on that day in the future we
Will be beyond these fears you see,
For each step we take, we take in doubt,
Until after it has all worked out."

And now your melancholy moment
Of doubt has come and gone,
Return to the celebration,
You've earned it. Congratulations!
                            ~ Rev. Peter T. Atkinson

Sunday, May 19, 2013

One Voice

One Voice
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
May 19, 2013
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Genesis 11: 1-9
Acts 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 When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.” [1]  

So today, in the church is the Holy Day where we celebrate Pentecost, the commemoration of the coming of the Holy Spirit, and as such the birth of the church. Our New Testament Lesson for today is the account of what happened on that day. It is strange to say the least. Divided tongues, "as of fire", appearing among them, the disciples, tongues resting on each of them, and then them beginning to speak in other languages, given the ability, immediately, without years of study, nor using the latest Rosetta Stone language learning software. That is the strange side of it, but then the useful side you get next, because people could understand. Barriers are broken down because every one hears what is being said in their own language, their own voice. Then the list of peoples from all over the known world is given and they all get it, they all get to hear anew the amazing "deeds of power" performed by God. But they are not sure, what does all this mean? And the conclusion most come to is, "they must be drunk on some new wine." That event marks the birth of the church.
The Holy Spirit is difficult to talk about. Have you ever thought so. By its very nature it doesn't lend itself well to words. The Word Ruach in Hebrew is the word for Spirit, it's the same word for Breath and Wind. In Greek the word is Pneuma, spirit, wind, breath as well, especially breath, pneumonia comes from that same root. So even by its nature it's intangible like air, but also like air indispensable and organically essential and necessary to life. I've heard so many of the metaphors. Since you can't see wind, how do you see it? You see it by its effects. In other words you don't see the wind, but you see the tree move and the leaves shake. Christina Rosetti has a poem in one of Coralee's poetry books about never seeing wind.  . .

Who has seen the wind?
Neither I nor you.
But when the leaves hang trembling,
The wind is passing through.
Who has seen the wind?
Neither you nor I.
But when the trees bow down their heads,
The wind is passing by.

To me poetry is a testament to the Holy Spirit's work in the world. In the statement of faith poem I wrote, I didn't include the Holy Spirit directly, thinking of it in a similar way, that though the Holy Spirit wasn't mentioned, the poem itself was a testament to exactly what the Holy Spirit is and what it does. The footnote dealing with that idea is as follows:

The format of this statement of faith is nineteen, seven lined stanzas each consisting of a complete idea, and building from the previous stanzas. These explanatory notes are provided to give further depth into my intentions for the meanings in and behind my choices of words. Each word, phrase, and line is intentionally chosen to convey meaning beyond the words themselves, as poetry can do more effectively than prose. I have been asked why the figure of the Holy Spirit seems to get short shrift in the text. This is also intentional. The Holy Spirit flows throughout the text through many small references, but is also present in the reading, and in the inspiration that these words may share. The Holy Spirit is present throughout this work in my own inspiration, and therefore poetically lives within. To give a more concrete defining  would lessen the communicated truth of a being, which we all feel and experience beyond what mere words can express.

That the poem could not have been structured without the Holy Spirit, and so it's influence like the moving trees was enough definition, in someways better definition because it was unfettered by the finitude of words, the limitations of words, the chains of literal meaning. But on Pentecost I feel called to try to speak more. Try to put it into words somehow. So we go through this day once a year where we try to put the Holy Spirit into words, but are wholly dependent thereupon to do so.
I'm going to take the Lectionary's lead today because I think it is a good and interesting take they have. They decided to pair this strange Pentecost occurrence, the tongues and fire and languages, with the Tower of Babel Story from Genesis, which ___________ read for us. The tower of Babel fits into the fall story genre. In fall stories there is a beginning situation, which in this case is that there was one language in the world and all people could understand each other. Then there is the end result, where the languages are confused, and the peoples are divided. In the middle we get a glimpse of human, maybe arrogance is the word, maybe misguided piety, maybe unchecked ambition, but the people in the story work together to try to build a bridge to heaven themselves, for their own glory. In a preemptive act, God decides to stop them and to  confuse their languages. . . God says:

“Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.”[2]  

There are a couple of interesting pieces to this story that when put in the perspective of Pentecost bring some ideas to light. For instance, look at what the people are trying to do when they build the Tower of Babel. They are trying to build a bridge to heaven themselves, to build a tower so high that they can literally find their way to heaven. If we look at this in terms of the Pentecost story, we seem to take this as not a literal tower, but a figurative one. A tower representing the ways that we have been trying on our own to produce our own communion with God, our own salvation, and each time we fail, but now, Christ has become that bridge for us, so we are no longer in need to make our own way, our own bridge, our own towers, Christ has become the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and now we have the advent of the Holy Spirit.  Is the gift of the Holy Spirit, then part of the undoing of Tower Babel damage. That no longer is trying to make it to God on our own an issue because God is with us in a new way with Christ, and in a new way again here with the Holy Spirit, that God built the bridge our way to us instead. Does this make all the difference?
Now if we go further down that path, look at what the Holy Spirit does for human beings when it descends. People come from all over, all nations, all over the known world at that time, and they can understand. There is one voice that is going out, but it is understood differently by each. One person speaks, but his voice is not his own, it is the tongue of the Holy Spirit, but there is understanding from all different people. The words somehow transform uniquely for each set of ears. There is one voice, and one voice only is speaking, but it is heard uniquely by many, by all, by each. Each person there hears the words on their own terms, in their own language.
There was a danger that human beings were going to be united around the tower of Babel, and that there were things that would be done that would be cosmically bad if that were the case, but not it would seem with this new leadership of the Holy Spirit; those barriers are coming down. Those aspects of life that have divided us for years are beginning to disappear. Christ has broken down barriers and built for us a bridge, and the Holy Spirit helps us see that bridge together. Look at what is universally heard because though the language is unique to each, the message is universal. It describes the "deeds of power" done by God, the amazing wonders of God, made known to all, transcending barriers, not just to Jews, but to Gentiles, and Gentiles of all walks of life, from all over the world, with a message personally translated to each and every soul. All, one and all, come to know God, come and take part in the deeds of Power that the Lord is doing, has done, and will do, they are amazing.
So if we think of what the Holy Spirit does in this story, it shows for us new marks. If the wind is seen when the leaves move, and the trees bow down in reverence. If the Holy Spirit is seen when inspiration in poetry, or music, or art, or ideas are made known. The other mark of the Holy Spirit is when truth and understanding become known by people, all people transcending perceived traditional barriers that have divided us. We must ask ourselves because the church found its birth with the coming of the Holy Spirit, do we have this mark upon us. Is the church breaking down barriers, or does it build them up. The history of the church certainly does not have a clean record in this area, despite its inspired birth that celebrate today. Let us anew seek to be a spirit led church, that the barrier breaking down, truth inspiring, tree blowing over Spirit is at the center of what we do, moving us in way of truth and love. Let us not be intimidated by the intangibleness of the spirit, seeking the concrete, planned path instead.
Without the Holy Spirit, we are left like our ancestors of Babel seeking our own destruction and confusion, by attempting to build our Babel church, bridge to Heaven, on our own. Christ is what makes the difference, the spirit is what makes the difference, the only difference. Time, evolution do not do it. We are not magically in a better place than those people of Genesis, simply because time has evolved, and our species is now somehow capable, no, rather we are because of Christ and because of the Holy Spirit. May we remember, as we build. Amen.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Ac 2:1-13). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[2]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Ge 11:6-7). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Shall Pierce Your Soul, too

Shall Pierce Your Soul, too
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
May 12, 2013
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Genesis 21: 1-6; 22: 1-2
Luke 2: 27-35 

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.

27 Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
29     “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
30     for my eyes have seen your salvation,
31     which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
32     a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.”
33 And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35 so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword shall pierce your own soul too.” [1]  

I decided to leave the lectionary again, this time for Mother's Day. I remember being at staff meetings in Hampton talking with my mentor Dr. Bob about how Mother's Day fits into the church calendar. I mean because it's not a religious holiday, it is instead a secular observance. The fact that I have to leave the lectionary to preach on a mother's day topic shows that. So what do you do, how far do you go? I decided this  year, I may not do it every year, but this year to pretend that Mother's Day is a Christian Holiday, a biblical holiday, rather than  Hallmark Holiday, and look at two of the biblical accounts of motherhood, one Old Testament and one New Testament. These are our mothers from the readings, Sarah and Mary. I have to admit that my idea for this sermon isn't completely my own, but was one planted in my mind from a question I was asked.
A woman that I work with at Blue Ridge was scheduled to give a chapel address, and wanted to do so, to a congregation of boys, on a perspective that she had unique to them, as a Mother of boys. She asked me, she said, "Pete, I don't have any theological training, but I wanted to give these boys a mother's point of view, is there anything I should think about in terms of where Sarah is, when Abraham is called to sacrifice Isaac?" In other words she wanted to know what was the official take on what Sarah was going through during that scene, because her Bible seemed to be silent on it, and she wanted to make sure she had it correct. It was funny, I thought for a moment and had no clue. I told her, I had just watched the first of that new Bible miniseries, which showed her realize Isaac was gone, and head out running, and Abraham and Isaac were coming up over a ridge, and since Abraham was so much taller for a split second she thinks he is alone, until Isaac's head pops up barely over the ridge and into view. I remembered seeing that scene, but it didn't register with me until she asked her question. I said it seems you are free to imagine Sarah's reaction anyway you want because the Bible is silent. But it got me thinking, about what it must have been like for Sarah at that moment, and certainly Mary goes through very much a similar situation, except that God was providing for Mary in a very different way. . . on the other side of the death sacrifice. Mother's are amazing.
I usually don't like computer chain type things, but this, my mother in law posted on facebook the other day, gets at describing a mother's experience in a way I never could because I am not one, nor never could be. So here it is:

"We are sitting at lunch one day when my daughter casually mentions that she and her husband are thinking of "starting a family." "We're taking a survey," she says half-joking. "Do you think I should have a baby?"

"It will change your life," I say, carefully keeping my tone neutral.

"I know," she says, "no more sleeping in on weekends, no more spontaneous vacations."

But that is not what I meant at all. I look at my daughter, trying to decide what to tell her. I want her to know what she will never learn in childbirth classes.

I want to tell her that the physical wounds of child bearing will heal, but becoming a mother will leave her with an emotional wound so raw that she will forever be vulnerable.

I consider warning her that she will never again read a newspaper without asking, "What if that had been MY child?" that every plane crash, every house fire will haunt her.

That when she sees pictures of starving children, she will wonder if anything could be worse than watching your child die.

I look at her carefully manicured nails and stylish suit and think that no matter how sophisticated she is, becoming a mother will reduce her to the primitive level of a pear protecting her cub. That an urgent call of "Mom!" will cause her to drop a soufflé or her best crystal without a moment's hesitation.

I feel I should warn her that no matter how many years she has invested in her career, she will be professionally derailed by motherhood. She might arrange for childcare, but one day she will be going into an important business meeting and she will think of her baby's sweet smell. She will have to use every ounce of discipline to keep from running home, just to make sure her baby is all right.

I want my daughter to know that every day decisions will no longer be routine. That a five year old boy's desire to go to the men's room rather than the women's at McDonald's will become a major dilemma. That right there, in the midst of clattering trays and screaming children, issues of independence and gender identity will be weighed against the prospect that a child molester may just be lurking in that restroom.

However decisive she may be at the office she will second guess herself constantly as a mother.

Looking at my attractive daughter, I want to assure her that eventually she will shed the pounds of pregnancy, but she will never feel the same about herself.

That her life, now so important, will be of less value to her once she has a child. That she would give herself up in a moment to save her offspring, but will also begin to hope for more years, not to accomplish her own dreams, but to watch her child accomplish theirs.

I want her to know that a cesarean scar or shiny stretch marks will become badges of honor.

My daughter's relationship with her husband will change, but not in the way she thinks. I wish she could understand how much more you can love a man who is careful to powder the baby or who never hesitates to play with his child. I think she should know that she will fall in love with him again for reasons she would now find very unromantic.

I want to describe to my daughter the exhilaration of seeing your child learn to ride a bike. I want to capture for her the belly laugh of a baby who is touching the soft fur of a dog or a cat for the first time.

I want her to taste the joy that is so real it actually hurts.

My daughter's quizzical look makes me realize that tears have formed in my eyes. "You'll never regret it," I finally say. . .

I already had chosen to talk about Sarah and Mary when I read that on Thursday. I couldn't get over the simple honesty of it, the rawness of it, it was even called primitive parenting, so I couldn't get over the idea of projecting those feelings onto Sarah and Mary, their experiences because the emotions, feelings, and honesty of the post seemed timeless, transcending culture, time, and anything, getting at what connects mothers, and therefore Sarah and Mary are included in it.
What was Mary thinking when Simeon said to her, "“This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed  so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword shall pierce your own soul too.” Did she have any thought of what was to come, was she warned, was she prepared? What about Sarah? She's there loving her son, the child of promise, the child they had waited for, for so long, the laughter brought into her life, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” But all of a sudden she looks up, Abraham is gone, Isaac is gone, to sacrifice, but all of the lambs are still there accounted for, they had taken none with them. A sword pierces your soul, too.
There is a connection between mother and child that is so amazing, so magical, that words cannot even come close to describing it. I stand in awe by it daily. It is the very definition of compassion--feeling with, because it is there. When a child laughs, the mother laughs, when a child cries the mother cries, when a child feels pain so too does the mother, when a child triumphs so too does the mother. Everything that a child goes through a mother goes through right there with them, from the beginning to the end, that feeling doesn't seem to go away even after the child is grown. So when a child is called by God to serve, the mother is called as well, and when that sacrifice, the sacrifice that love demands, is made and called for, the mother must go through it as well, and the difference seems to be that mother's don't get to choose because God does and the child does, it is between them, God and Child, and so the Mother seems to have to just let it happen. We as people are called in a general way to love God and to love our neighbor, love does not exist without sacrifice, and we are all called in personal ways to love, and serve, and love does not exist without sacrifice. Can there be anything harder for a Mother to do than introducing their child to the Christian life? Because if being Christian is to be a little Christ, then we introduce our children to becoming the same sacrifice that Jesus made and that Abraham was willing to make, a complete offering to God, discipleship with all its cost. It is certainly much bigger than dressing them up and bringing them to church on Sunday morning. The realness of the claim of the call is quite intense if we allow ourselves to think about it.
What an amazing picture of the image of God, though is a Mother, the character of God, the love of God who would love so much to give the gift of freedom because love requires it, bearing the personal heartbreak of allowing what you created to make the choice to suffer. God seems to believe that it is all worth it, and so does each mother who has taught their children to walk this Earth, through the hardship, the war, the pestilence, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, the endless trains of the faithless, the cities filled with the foolish, the broken hearts, the bumps and bruises, the failures and defeats, the dreams deferred, the tears shed. Oh what faith is required to believe that there is more to it all, but yet every mother who teaches her child is a testament to that faith.. God let us choose the hard way, knowing that in darkness there is light, in pain there is healing, through suffering there is strength, despite hatred there is love, and love is more powerful after all, but so much more costly at least in the immediate, soul piercing kind of way, but this is where faith, love, and hope are connected, that the promise of blessing made to Sarah is still and always will be true, that the call to Mary still includes favor, that her heart now sings out to Joy because salvation was on the other side, real, true, deep, infinite, all encompassing, life is there, full life in God's loving hands is there. So on this day where we thank mom's, we also thank God, and we thank everyone who has ever truly loved, for to have loved is to know to have experienced that sword piercing your soul, too, knowing that all who have loved have also lived and therefore have had a mother. Hallelujah, Amen, May it truly be so!


[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Lk 2:27-35). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.