Monday, August 26, 2013

A Statement of Faith

 I believe in God,

Who is eternal, infinite, indescribable,

That being said, I’ll try to describe,

Knowing that I will fall short,

But faith is not about complete accuracy;

Instead it is about growing closer,

Approaching, seeking, searching.


I believe that God

Is the great poet,

Creator of the universe,

God’s creating influence, like God

Is not finite, but rather infinite

On going, constantly occurring

Directed by God.


I believe that knowledge of God

Is revealed to us,

Through scripture,

Which I understand to be

Divinely inspired,

Filtered by human voices,

And like us, finite.


I believe that knowledge of God

Is also imputed into us,

We have an innate

Sense of hierarchy

That places something above us;

This something stems

From the question Why?


I believe that knowledge of God

Can be found through

Our observing of the world,

In things, events, and feelings.

We get a glimpse

Of power and creativity

Beyond our understanding.


I believe that this knowledge of God

Is easily ignored

Because it cannot be nailed down

Or packaged and sold.

Instead, it, like poetry,

Despite great power

Is subtle.


I believe that ignoring God

Is the essence of Sin.

We turn away from

Our knowledge of God

No matter how developed

Following our own will

Relying on ourselves.


I believe that Sin

Leads us away from God

Manifesting in action.

Action is symptomatic

Of the great disease

That we have passed

From generation to generation.


I believe that Sin

Is most dangerous

When we believe

That our finite understanding

Of God is complete,

For knowledge is influential

Especially, imperfect knowledge.


I believe that Sin’s influence

Grows exponentially

Creating barriers

Which block true knowledge

Leading to false paths

Toward lesser surrogates

Which become idol replacements.


I believe that the results of Sin

Are the evils

Of our world,

Naturally rising

From our ignorance

Of actual truth and purpose,

The created Way.


I believe God sent Jesus Christ

To reconnect us,

Teaching us more

About what God is

Through Words, Signs,

And Love, Creating

As an artist and Poet.


I believe Jesus Christ

Is God’s only

begotten son,

The Word,

The same as God,

With us, one of us,



I believe Jesus Christ

Was a teacher of Truth,

That there is much to learn

From His parables

And sermons,

And from the example

Of the life He lived.


I believe Jesus Christ

Died on the cross

To atone for our Sin

A sacrifice of flesh

Making us righteous

In God’s sight,

A selfless act of Salvation.


I believe Jesus Christ

Was not a prisoner

To death,

But defeated death,

And was raised,

Removing imagined limits

To the power of God.


I believe that the Church

Stands as a witness

To Jesus Christ,

To teach His word,

To serve His world,

To love as

He has loved.


I believe that Salvation

As a story goes on,

It lives in the infinite

From whence it comes.

To the Glory of God

Living, Creating, Ruling, Loving

Eternal, Amen.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Right and Wrong

Right and Wrong
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
August 25, 2013
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Luke 13: 10-17 

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.
10 Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. 11 And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. 12 When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” 13 When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. 14 But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” 15 But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? 16 And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” 17 When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing. [1]


Sometimes things just make sense. This week we started our meetings at school. On Wednesday we had a special expert in the field of Character Education come to talk to us. She was a representative from the Character Education in Schools Coalition, from Washington D.C. We had been for sometime seeking ways to improve the way we intentionally teach our students to be young men of character, so we had high hopes from what this lady might say. We did a number of typical small group brainstorming exercises, talking about what we are already doing, and what we can begin to do better, all typical stuff. But then after lunch we got to a point where she started talking about the things that they do at their sponsored schools, and the ways in which they assess the character of their students and the effectiveness of their programs. This is where I lost it. She asked us to find ways that we can assess the character of our students. That we needed to place benchmarks for character, and then make sure that all of the students could reach those benchmarks. And here is the problem, and it will always be a problem, in order to get everyone to reach those benchmarks, they have got to be super super low, and then you have dissolved character so low, that it is completely unrecognizable as such. Of course I spoke up, and challenged her, that perhaps character isn't about assessing, getting to a point where you can reach the end of the day and claim to be a good person, but instead virtues to which we can aspire, constantly reaching upwards and upwards, a mixture of effort and grace. She told me that you can't build a house without a strong foundation, and I wish I was quick enough to tell back to her, that you try to sell a foundation as a house, but I didn't. The reason I say that things make sense is, that I had looked at the lectionary passage and found this one. Jesus healing on the Sabbath, and the backlash from the Pharisees.

Now, I want to talk a little about what Pharisees were at the time of Christ. Now since the Exile, when Jews were spread across God's creation, they could no longer base their national identity on the things that they had in the past, nor in the things that nations of the world had always previously based their identities upon. The temple of Solomon was no more, the monarchy had fallen, and the nation had collapsed. The people were forced to leave the land. Some exiled to Babylon and some spread to other parts of the world. Over the next hundreds of years Jews struggled against a series of occupying empires. First there was the Babylonians, who made  them leave Jerusalem, then the Persians, who let them return, the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, recount the return to Jerusalem. If you read those two books you will find many specific parts referring to the need to keep the Jew's identity as a people intact, to keep them identifiable in a world that was constantly changing, and a world that seemed powered by the powerful, so the purpose of the laws was twofold. One reason was to keep God's favor, and the other was to show distinctions between them and the other nations of the world. After the Persians were the Greeks, and after the Greeks the Romans, which brings us to the time of Christ. Under the Greeks, many feared the Hellenizaton of  the Jewish people. Under the Romans there was more and more chances to modernize and become a part of the occupying culture. The Pharisees were a group of teachers who were trying their best to help their nation remain loyal to the traditions, to not dissolve within the rest of the Roman Empire, to be different, and to be the people of God. It is this mission that is happening when Jesus enters the scene and challenges them, their mission, and often, as he does here, calls them hypocrites, for trying to uphold the law for the people. It is easy for us to look back at this story and say to ourselves, how out of line the Pharisees in this story were, but with the historical point of view of the Pharisees in mind, you can see where they are coming from. I'm not sure that it completely exonerates them, but at least we can sympathize with them to some extent.
To me both the lady from the Character Association and the Pharisees are so similar. And much can be learned from their similarity. Both seem to be concerned with outward, visible forms of behavior. The Pharisees want to keep their people identifiably Jews, to set them apart, to distinguish them from others. The Character Association lady's motivation is similar. She wanted her schools to be able to set achievable standards, so they could declare to the world and to the students of the school, to concerned parents, to interested bureaucrats, to worried constituents that their school was better, distinguished from others, and an official school of character, and a solid rock in a changing world.  The question for both is, is there a difference between real character and assessable character? Is there a difference between being a real child of God, and one who can be visibly distinguished as such? Jesus seems to point out, as I did this week, that there must be more, there must be a difference because the demand of real character always is higher, the law of love is at stake and it cannot be assessed with a simple test and a checklist approach, for there are situations that arise that challenge the letter of the law with a real need within our call as human beings, and a tendency among humans to aspire to the image of goodness rather than actual goodness, we call this hypocrisy, and so did Jesus.
Jesus challenges the Pharisees, heals the woman, on the Sabbath, leaving the people rejoicing on one hand, but secretly wondering on the other hand, what it all means, and how we are to now, in light of Jesus' actions and justification, just how it is that we can determine right and wrong. And it is a question that haunts our world, especially as the Bureaucratic Pharisees are entering our schools and selling Goodness and Character, at seriously low standards, measuring goodness together with inclusivity, and group measures. Now this is the first issue. Laws and standards are created to divide people. Just like they divided the Jews from their occupiers, but they are dividing lines of minimums. If you achieve those minimums you are good, and if you do not you are bad, or you can insert your own adjective, a popular often used one is "in or out." Think about College acceptance, that's a good example, if you get good enough grades, then you get accepted, now if you don't make the minimums you get rejected. Now you pair with this notion, the idea of inclusivity, and the standards get lowered and lowered in order to keep the most people in. Now I agree with the inclusivity, what I have a problem with is the standards, at least as apply them to groups because they are based on minimums, teaching us to stoop rather than reach. I would prefer a messier system of reaching, failing, and grace.
Ok then, but how do we determine right from wrong, to what do we reach? I've been thinking about it for a while how we come up with our concept of right and wrong on an individual basis, how we determine which is which. How do you know? And not just how do I determine right from wrong, but how do all people. The way it seems to me is that there are internal and external forces that help us to determine right from wrong, and they create a tangled web around our minds, and even sometimes combine together. If we think about external forces, the first are traditions, which includes things like religion, philosophy, mores, education, what we are taught by parents and friends, stuff like that. They typically come from wise or religious people from the past. Then also there is the standard of popular opinion. This is a big one today. What does the majority of people think is right and wrong? How does that affect the way we think? Let's take a vote, or a poll, see what's trending on twitter. The last big external source would be divine revelation, which suggests that God personally speaks to us telling us the difference in our own lives, apart from traditions. All possible, are you following me so far?
 The next set is internal, based around what we think. Now what determines what we think, much of it may be from those external sources, but there may be factors about the way we each are wired from birth, being a parent has shown me some truth to this, since Coralee and Clara were so different, even on day 1 of their lives. Another internal could be a concept of conscience. Now is conscience just wiring, is it just an internalization of a divine source, like the Holy Spirit, or is it not real? All possibilities. The last way we may determine right from wrong is the practical experiential way. The idea that we've seen the results of certain types of behavior and if we don't like the consequences then we call the behavior bad, and if we do like the rewards we call the behavior good. Did I miss any? I did, but I want to wait a minute for it.
Now which of these do you use? Do you in some ways use all of them to determine right from wrong? Do you find that in some situations they work together, and in others they do not. Is it possible that a practical experiential version of right and wrong, is against the tradition, or the popular opinion. Is it possible that one says one thing and another something else. Traditions even have differences between them, over thousands of years, and popular opinion is constantly changing and shifting. An example of the practical being possibly wrong, at least in Jesus' example is the cross, certainly, at least in the short term, materialistic sense, a very bad outcome, but we'd all probably say that the sacrifice of the cross is a good thing. Many of us would also think that sacrifice for others in general is a good thing, though it may break the experiential definitions of reward and punishment.
Think about this now for our Bible scene. The Pharisees claim one tradition, claim it comes from God, and Jesus claims another, and claims his is God's. Obviously for us Jesus has a higher authority, but he does challenge an important traditional pillar, of work on the Sabbath. It goes even further when Jesus says that he did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. Ok, now how do we go forward with this? How do we live? How do we choose right from wrong, how can we assess the goodness of our character? It's not so easy is it? Blindly following the tradition would be easier. . . but Jesus challenges that here. It appears that there are situations where the tradition is limited. Many people have found that traditions are limited, and so they have replaced them, but is that for the better? There are many who replaced tradition with popular opinion, blindly following the herd, obviously it has its limitations. Other's try to base everything on their own perspective and experience, but this can lead to a very narrow view of the world, and doesn't lend itself well to things like sacrifice and empathy.
Jesus seems to suggest to us that we need more, that it is harder, more difficult to choose. There needs to be some kind of a mixture, where all parts of decision making faculties are important. Notice  how Jesus answers their questions. He doesn't tell them exactly what to do, but instead asks them a question, asks them to consider a parallel situation and deduce the proper behavior. Jesus seems to respect us and expect us to be able to make moral decisions like this on our own, as if we know right from wrong ourselves.
This leads me to the last idea that I said I would get to, and that is actual truth. Jesus seems to be pointing to the presence of their being an actual truth in the world, and it is this we should seek, and it transcends all of the other categories. In some ways they should all if true point towards the actual truth, and they all can and do, but perhaps not completely, and thus their limitations. But even though the tradition may not be 100% true, doesn't mean there aren't glimpses of truth within it. The same for popular opinion, the same for our wiring, the same for experiential. The truth would then be a real mixture of the true parts of all of these internal and external forces. We just need to find out what that mixture is. Jesus seems to point us in that direction, suggesting that we may just have the ability and knowledge to do so, or at least the potential. But at the same time offers us grace and forgiveness.

You see this is why our standards and minimums just never work, and are never high enough, because they only represent a small piece of the truth, a finite piece of an infinite truth for God is included in truth and God is infinite. Anything less sells us way short of the image of God in which we were created, and sells short the amazing creation that is human beings. Instead of dividing us by standards, we are given the chance through grace to reach to amazing possibilities of truth. It's harder because it has to be real, it's more difficult because it doesn't allow us to stop and rest, it's a challenge because it constantly has us reaching for more, but as we reach we are approaching God and God's truth. What an amazing goal, something that seems to be constantly evading us and is just out of our grasp, we also find at rest loving us in our hearts. May we be both inspired to greatness and filled with loving inclusion because it is our lot as children of God, human beings, made in God's holy image.
I'd like to close by reading you a poem. I included a part of this poem in the bulletin. It is called, "Law, Like Love" by W.H. Auden. Listen for my categories in the images Auden includes in describing love.

Law, say the gardeners, is the sun,
Law is the one
All gardeners obey
To-morrow, yesterday, to-day.

Law is the wisdom of the old,
The impotent grandfathers feebly scold;
The grandchildren put out a treble tongue,
Law is the senses of the young.

Law, says the priest with a priestly look,
Expounding to an unpriestly people,
Law is the words in my priestly book,
Law is my pulpit and my steeple.

Law, says the judge as he looks down his nose,
Speaking clearly and most severely,
Law is as I've told you before,
Law is as you know I suppose,
Law is but let me explain it once more,
Law is The Law.

Yet law-abiding scholars write:
Law is neither wrong nor right,
Law is only crimes
Punished by places and by times,
Law is the clothes men wear
Anytime, anywhere,
Law is Good morning and Good night.

Others say, Law is our Fate;
Others say, Law is our State;
Others say, others say
Law is no more,
Law has gone away.

And always the loud angry crowd,
Very angry and very loud,
Law is We,
And always the soft idiot softly Me.

If we, dear, know we know no more
Than they about the Law,
If I no more than you
Know what we should and should not do
Except that all agree
Gladly or miserably
That the Law is
And that all know this
If therefore thinking it absurd
To identify Law with some other word,
Unlike so many men
I cannot say Law is again,

No more than they can we suppress
The universal wish to guess
Or slip out of our own position
Into an unconcerned condition.
Although I can at least confine
Your vanity and mine
To stating timidly
A timid similarity,
We shall boast anyway:
Like love I say.

Like love we don't know where or why,
Like love we can't compel or fly,
Like love we often weep,
Like love we seldom keep.

And therefore we truly and desparately need grace!

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Lk 13:10-17). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Like Fire

Like Fire
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
August 18, 2013
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Luke 12: 49-56

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.

49 “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50 I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! 51 Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! 52 From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; 53 they will be divided:
father against son
and son against father,
mother against daughter
and daughter against mother,
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
54 He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. 55 And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. 56 You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time? [1]  

The first sermon I ever gave after entering seminary was based on this very passage. It was my third sermon all time. As a senior in high school, a few weeks before graduating I gave my first sermon. It was youth Sunday, I was drafted, and I swore I would never do it again. Then right before entering seminary, as I was leaving Christchurch after teaching there six years, I was asked to preach, and so I did. Then I entered seminary, and I was under care at First Presbyterian Church, in Gloucester, and was given the chance to preach. I had no idea what to preach about, and at that point was very rules conscious, so I decided to look at the lectionary. It was six years ago this week, so this passage was it. Can you imagine? Talk about a tough draw. You've got Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, the God of love's only begotten son, coming forward and saying that he isn't bringing peace, but instead a sword, and is going to drive wedges between family members, and is going to set the world on fire, as soon as possible, and in and according to his words he wishes the fire was already started. Not an easy passage, to say the least. It was six years ago, and I wish I could say that I was closer to sure about what this text is all about now, but to be absolutely honest, I'm not. Six years, two of which were spent studying at Seminary, two serving as a ministry intern at a church in Hampton, a summer at a camp in New York, and almost two years now here, looking at the Bible constantly I'm still blown away by this passage.
Six years ago, basically I said that Jesus is dynamic. That being human and being infinite as God, there was much to him, and that even after years and years of studying the Bible we can still get surprised by an aspect of him that we never knew before. I still find that to be very true. So I challenged the congregation then to dig a little deeper in their relationship with Jesus, to not put him in a box, but instead to dig past, open to the possibilities and challenges of a real relationship. I also then challenged them to dig deeper in their relationships with each other. I knew the church, and thought that it was good advice for them. That building relationships based in real depth of knowledge about each other was always a good thing. To tell you the truth, that was a safe sermon, in a way I skirted the issue here about the Prince of Peace brandishing a sword. How does that work? How is it possible that the Prince of Peace is captaining division and apparent violence? Frankly, the nonsense poem, the Jabberwocky makes more sense, with the vorpal sword going snicker-snack against the frubious bandersnitch.
So I've been doing a fair amount of research this week, trying to look at what other people are saying. Now I found a lot of people trying to apologize this text away. Saying that Jesus really didn't mean it, really didn't mean it literally anyway, was just testing the disciples. These people tend to compare this passage to the angels calling Jesus the Prince of Peace to the shepherds at Christmas, and then that he tells Peter to put away his sword, being that those who choose to live by the sword, die by the sword, two beats out one, so this text is just an anomaly, their conclusion being that it must just be Jesus testing the disciples in some way. It's possible, perhaps. But testing them how and for what? Is that like me six years ago, saying that Jesus is trying to keep them on their toes, one step ahead, making sure they don't for once think they've got it all figured out? Again possibly. It certainly works that way, but is there more?
Another group I found this week is focusing on the idea that Jesus probably really did say this. There is a academic quest that has been popular in the last 50 some years to find the historical Jesus, trying to get passed the hype, get passed the agendas, get passed the glossing, and get at exactly who Jesus was and what he really did. Historical Jesus is often code for the human Jesus, the non Christian Jesus, the not at all God, Jesus. A book like that just came out, they do every few years, with some new view point analyzing the historical data, trying to find out what is legitimate and what isn't. They have certain criteria for judging which parts of the text of the gospels are authentic, or at least more or less authentic. Now remember I said that this text is one they typically find to be authentic. One of the tests is whether an event is attested in more than one gospel. This is, both Matthew and Luke include it, though the surrounding text in both is somewhat different. Another of their criteria is what they call the embarrassment factor. If a text seems to not fit the typical selling narrative or casts the characters in a negative light, they figure that it is likely authentic, based on the idea, that "who would make that up about themselves." It's really scientific stuff. . . really puts the right stuff into perspective, doesn't it, and again it doesn't get us any closer really to wrestling with the difficult, and/or embarrassing part of this difficult text, it just acknowledges the realness of it.
As I kept thinking this week though, I wondered why it is that we have a problem with this passage, why it is embarrassing to us, why it is troubling, why it is difficult, because it is one hundred percent true, isn't it. It is exactly what Christ brings. Look at history. Christian history- swords? check, fire? check, division? check. It's all there. Look at Christ's life according to the rest of the gospels, swords and division, yes there. . . check and check. Look at today's world, violence and division, based in Christianity or at least surrounding Christianity. In Egypt just this week, the fires of violence erupted with Christianity, with Christ's name at least being involved this time as victim. Division, the sword, fire. Families are divided over belief and non belief, or even more simply over what belief means. This little town alone has at least 5 different churches, divided on all kinds of details about what Jesus is about. Division is all around us. So it shouldn't surprise us, or shock us that Jesus would foretell it. The problem that we may have is that it seems that Jesus isn't saying that these things are bad. And we really want them to be bad, they really seem so bad, and they really make us uncomfortable. He is saying he can't wait until it all begins, when the fire of his baptism could already be kindled. We could run from this, hiding behind the historical questions, hiding in the safety of metaphor, hiding in the well he couldn't have really meant that, But let us not run from truth, so quickly.
 Is it possible that, though we dislike it, there is something very positive in this division Jesus is describing, there is something very positive in argument, there is something very positive in discord. For what is the source of the division that Christ brings to the world. It's truth, isn't it. Truth like this passage that we don't like. Truth like breaking up the status quo in the world. Truth like speaking out against hypocrisy and the act that we all play. Truth like we are loved, and created for greatness beyond our wildest imaginings, truth like on the other side of the cross there is life, truth like there shouldn't be buying and selling in the temple, truth like a crippled man has it in him to rise and take up his map and walk, truth like I know you will deny me three times, truth like I know I will be betrayed, truth like let this cup pass from me, truth like father forgive them they know not what they do.
This stuff shakes our status quo, and that makes people afraid, and when people are afraid they go crazy trying to protect themselves. Have you all seen the movie Moneyball, about Billy Beane, the General Manager for the Oakland A's? The movie depicts him seeking to change the way that people assess talent in baseball. He uses statistics that no one else is using and other analytics and puts together a winning major league baseball team for millions of dollars less than the competition, truly less than half of what the Yankees paid for the exact same number of wins. At the end of the movie, one of the richest teams in baseball, The Red Sox tries to hire him, and the owner pitches to him exactly what it is he accomplished. He says to him, "I know you're taking it on the chin out there, but the first guy through the wall he always gets bloody. Always, cause its threatening not just a way of doing business, or a game, but their livelihood, their jobs, it's threatening the way that they do things. And every time that happens, whether it's the government, or a way of doing business or whatever it is, the people who are holding the reigns, and have their hands on the switch, they go bat ($$$$) crazy". And that is just baseball, just a game, just a sport. Jesus is offering a completely different way of seeing the world, a different way of seeing humanity, a different way of seeing God, don't you think the swords would be flying, sure but no sword can stop fire. They can't stop the truth. It will come, it's baptism is slow but its end is sure. It ends in peace, eternal, perfect, Godly peace, the kind of peace that only lives on the other side of the cross, and through the fire, the kind of peace that we would do anything in our power to prevent because it completely changes the way we do business, the way we live, the way we are, and so we divide we fight against, but it is a process that ends in truth because truth cannot be stopped.
Jesus goes on to talk about how we can judge the weather, but can't tell the times. Perhaps even our judging of the weather ain't all that good, since it was supposed to rain all day yesterday, and there wasn't a drop, but it did finally come. I think Jesus says this about the weather right after this because as much as we are uncomfortable with division, we can't judge effectively how well it is working because we just can't.  We don't know, but faith suggests, and the rest of Jesus' life attests to the authenticity of his message, and that the cross leads to the resurrection, and through the baptism of fire we come out clean. That's the thing though it's out of our control, like fire, though we try to tend it, though we use it, though we feel like we are the ones in control of it, we just aren't, but Christ is. We are uncomfortable with alot about what we see, but faith in truth, and it's happening maybe can give us some comfort, and strength to go on despite our fears and misgivings.
When seen through these eyes it seems pretty simple doesn't it, which is why I'm not sure I got it all, and why after six years I'm just as far away as I was six  years ago. Because there is nothing further away from Jesus than a simple answer, even if it is a difficult one, but I think it helps to pose them, and it helps to think through them, and each time we do we get closer and closer, not running from the truth, not claiming to know the entire truth, but doing what we can to try and stand in its all encompassing fire, believing that Christ is there with us.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Lk 12:49-56). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Do Not Be Afraid, Little Flock

Do Not Be Afraid, Little Flock
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
August 11, 2013
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Luke 12: 13-21 

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.

So last week we studied the passage that precedes this one, which included the parable about the rich fool whose crop came in and in his greed built barns to hold it, but he passed away, leaving all of his savings laid to waste. We looked at how greed is a form of idolatry, because things become replacements for God. Things become what we look to for protection, for sustenance, for our lives, etc. We build up worthless protections around ourselves, amassing treasures for our future, but leave untended our relationship with God, which according to Jesus is what really matters. Love is what really matters. Jesus follows up that parable with this morning's reading, Luke 12, beginning at verse 22, in which Jesus makes some bold promises about how God works in our world, and therefore how we are to live in faith and love and relationship.

22 He said to his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. 23 For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. 24 Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! 25 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?  26 If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest? 27 Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 28 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith! 29 And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. 30 For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. 31 Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.

32 “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. 33 Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. 34 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. [1] .

This week as I have been studying and thinking about this text, I couldn't help but think of how God's love manifests itself in our lives, and on the contrary how we often consider love, at least in some of our most basic relationships. Many people view love as a tax, as responsibility, as chains, as slavery. They avoid relationships because they don't want to be tied down. Often people refer to their spouse as the "Old Ball and Chain." These phrases are familiar to us because they are all around us. They ring with truths, at least to some extent. Life changes when you find love, that is for sure, and truth be told I've always thought, despite what many Theologians and Philosophers claim, that love is love, and therefore there are many parallels and unity in the love we have for our spouses, the love we have for our parents, the love we have for our children, and the Christian love that we are supposed to talk about in church, the love that God has for us and we get to reciprocate. I think they are the same when "true", yes I am a Romantic enough to believe in true love, when love is true it is the same, there is not difference between love and love, but at the same time all around us there are many love imposters. And the church throughout its history and certainly today is not immune to imposters of love. Isn't it ironic that love, romantic, familial, and Christian, all have histories of enslaving, ball in chain, guilt ridden responsibility, and superficiality in them, when love at its heart must be free. Love is supposed to set free, as God does, but how often people use it to control, but I guess that goes lock step with people using God to control. Is this a symptom or the cause of our fall?
I'm going to use in this sermon, in concert with the scripture, the literary ideas that are swirling around my head this summer. I'm currently reading about 6 books, but two of them at least the last few days more consistently, for Blue Ridge Summer Reading, A Farewell to Arms and because of an interest, Anna Karenina. Interestingly enough both of them deal with love, both true and imposter love in this world, and what happens when "life" gets in the way of love. By life, I mean, how war, social norms and structures, allegiances and friendships, and that big stumbling block of love: gossip, get in the way of true love thriving. The other things swirling around my head this week have been music, especially country music,  as I was preparing for the concert yesterday, and because I have a three year old daughter who goes through rotating princess phases, I also have going through my head the story of this week's princess, Rapunzel, as her story is told in Disney Pixar's Tangled, the movie made a few years ago. Bear with me as all of these swirl together in my mind to make a formative commentary on this morning's so well known text about "not worrying, and ravens and lilies of the field, arrayed in clothes rivaling Solomon" 
So earlier this week I read in A Farewell to Arms this line:
When you love you wish to do things for. You wish to sacrifice for. You wish to serve. "I don't love." "You will. I know you will. Then you will be happy."

The priest is telling the narrator Lt. Henry about what love is because he says he does not love and has never loved. The priest is trying to ward Henry away from one of the impostors of love, in this case sex. Lt. Henry does not want to love, because in the midst of the war he does not want anything real, anything to stir his emotions, anything to care about, love seems to do those things, but how then can it make you happy? Sacrifice, service, happiness: which one of these three doesn't belong? Doesn't make sense right. But he says:

She went out. God knows I had not wanted to fall in love with her. I had not wanted to fall in love with anyone. But God knows I had. . .
I guess then he should be happy now, and he is, in little moments. His life is fulfilled in ways he couldn't imagine before, serving, sacrificing, loving, but all in the midst of war. Doesn't make sense, too complicated, too much irony, and it becomes way too powerfully painful for him, at the end through loss and the seemingly randomness of death in our world.. Bringing me now to Anna Karenina, woman in a love imposter marriage, at least on the surface because of the walls that her husband has built around himself, driven by true love, what she thinks is true love, or is it simply the desire to be alive and in love, which is it, especially since it leads to her self destruction? I've barely scratched the surface of this super super long novel, but have read quotes like this one. Talking about marriage:
Marriage for love? What antediluvian notions you have, can one talk of love these days? The only happy marriages I know are marriages of prudence.
There is a big theme in the novel amongst many of the people who have become realists, believing that love is simply a foolish idealism, and now they have logic replacing love. Can it happen? And then this:
He felt that he was standing face to face with something illogical and irrational, and did not know what was to be done. He was standing face to face with life, the possibility that his wife loved someone other than himself, and this seemed to him very irrational and incomprehensible because it was life itself.
For the first time this man was feeling the emotions of love, and couldn't handle it because it shook him through and through, it made him feel, it made him come alive, no longer sheltering himself from life, but again opening himself up to pain in a way he had never before experienced. Is this what love is? Both Hemingway and Tolstoy depict a world that is anti love. Hemingway because he doesn't believe in love any more, lost generation, not believing in anything anymore, as famously in one of his short stories wrote, nada, who art in nada, nada be thy name, and on the other hand Tolstoy, who is one of the last romantics in a world he finds hopelessly lost in logical delusions of so called realism. But why, why do we not believe in love. What has happened? Because in essence to not believe in God is to not believe in love, and it's power, or to idolize one of its impostors. Why does real and true love have trouble being recognized and longed for in today's world? This is an important question for church people to address because sadly it goes hand in hand with the antipathy many people today have towards organized religion.

So now on to country music. There is this great song called "Riding for a Fall" written and performed by Chris Ledoux, who was a singer and rodeo rider actually, so he knows something about falling. I love the song, love singing it, and was trying to figure out a way to make it relatable to us here at church, so I could sing it yesterday, not that I needed an excuse, but it got me thinking, and even though I didn't sing it, I had this notion about how our desires for freedom cause us to not be willing to love, very much in line with what I'm talking about today. Ledoux opens the song with. . .

Last night you told her, you could never hold her.
'Cause a cowboy's just gotta be free.
Her heart was breakin', yours was achin',
But you saddled up to follow your dreams.

Again why does something that is supposed to set us free like love, seem like something that could drag us down and keep us from our dreams? He goes on in the second verse:

Midnight the moons up, hands around your tin cup.
The frost settles in on the sage.
The nights gettin' colder, well, man you're gettin' older.
T'night you're feelin' you're age.
Well, why don't you turn back, just saddle up and backtrack.
You know you'll never find a love quite like hers.
And tell me, on a cold lonesome evenin', what the hell good's your
Don't you think it's time you hung up your spurs?
You can make a run for the border, try to hide up the hole in the wall.
But don't you know your arms are achin' to hold her.
And cowboy even though you're ridin' tall...You're ridin' for a fall.[2]

So even though he decides to go back to her, it's not a choice of freedom, but of finally just acknowledging the fact that he needs love, he needs the chains, better have comfortable chains, now that he's getting older. Now I love that song, but is that love, or another imposter? More chains. . .
So that brings us to Rapunzel. Rapunzel gets at the problems we have with love, and the way the impostors of love have abused us of the notion, leaving us wallowing and defensive, and faithless about its existence. (Do you see the connection to contemporary Atheism?) Now we all are familiar with the story of Rapunzel right, girl, long hair, trapped in a tower. Now Disney puts a spin on the story, by putting forth that Rapunzel's hair has magical healing powers that not only can heal wounds, but can also restore youth, so this witch kidnaps Rapunzel as a baby and locks her in the tower, so that she keep the hair to herself,  using it to keep herself young. Now she is manipulative though, and instead of having Rapunzel trapped and in chains she instead uses what it often called in politics, a "soft tyranny" on her. In the guise of caring for her and loving her, she makes Rapunzel believe that she is naive and helpless, and in such completely dependent on her "Mother's" protection. There is a song from the movie that truly gets at what I mean. It's called, "Mother knows best." Rapunzel wants to leave the tower to see these floating lights she has dreamed about seeing her whole life, and the witch sings her this song:

You want to go outside
Why, Rapunzel?

Look at you, as fragile as a flower
Still a little sapling, just a sprout
You know why we stay up in this tower
(I know but)
That's right, to keep you safe and sound, dear

Mother knows best
Listen to your mother
It's a scary world out there

Mother knows best
One way or another
Something will go wrong, I swear

Ruffians, thugs
Poison ivy, quicksand
Cannibals and snakes, the plague
(But )

Also large bugs
Men with pointy teeth and
Stop, no more, you'll just upset me

Mother's right here
Mother will protect you
Darling, here's what I suggest

Skip the drama
Stay with mama
Mother knows best

Mother knows best
Take it from your mumsy
On your own, you won't survive

Sloppy, under-dressed
Immature, clumsy
Please, they'll eat you up alive

Gullible, naive
Positively grubby
Ditzy and a bit, well, hmm, vague

Plus, I believe
Gettin' kinda chubby
I'm just saying 'cause I love you

Mother understands
Mother's here to help you
All I have is one request

Don't ever ask to leave this tower again
(Yes, mother)

Oh, I love you very much, dear
(I love you more)
I love you most, hmm

Don't forget it
You'll regret it
Mother knows best[3]

Is that one of the imposters of love? Have you ever experienced it? Dependence, guilt, fear, all  used to keep you enslaved. It happens throughout history, in families, but also by nations, governments and kings, and saddened I have to say it, also in churches, and it has left people reeling faithless and underwhelmed because nothing destroys something like an imposter. Why do  you think Jesus was so hard on hypocrites in the gospels? Two faces, play acting, fake, going through the motions. . . do you see it? It's what Mother Gothel is to Rapunzel. She doesn't really love her she is using her, keeping her in place, using guilt and fear, imposters to love.
But here in church we say that God is love, this we know for the Bible tells us so. Little ones to him belong, they are weak but he is strong. Not an imposter, but real, so we say. How do you know the difference? How can you tell real love from the imposter? How can you tell God from the idol? For like we've said love demands change, it deals with service and sacrifice, it involves dependence and being weak and seeking strength, just as these imposters do. What is the difference?
Don't worry. Don't fear. Don't strive for the wrong things, chasing the wind as we talked about last week, for aren't you greater than these things? Oh how much more value you are than the birds? Do you hear the difference? Love builds up. It doesn't trap you in feelings of inadequacy. It doesn't scare you into submission. It doesn't break you down so as to get your loyalty. It doesn't mire you in feelings of guilt. Instead real love builds you up. It shows you how great you truly are, so that you are free in all your greatness and wonder to choose, hoping that you will give freely in return. God made us in His image, "a little lower than God, ever mindful, like the grains of sand on the beach, crowned in Glory and honor" as psalm 8 renders so poetically. This is God's position, and how God works. This is the kingdom of God which is his "good pleasure to give us" without strings only love. Faith sees the world of love very differently, not logical, not always apparent, but real and the true source of happiness, the true source of life..
Once you see love for what it is, the imposters become apparent. They surround us, beware of them, they can, have, and will break us down. We must be aware of them, they are the stuff of the desert, Jesus faced them there, where the source of life was barren, and he hadn't eaten for forty days, and the temptation towards love's imposters was strong, but Jesus knew that we don't live by bread alone, but by our father's love, and the imposter went away, completely powerless. There is a great scene at the end of Tangled, when Rapunzel finally realizes who she is, she says,

"I am the lost princess, it was you, it was all you, I spent my entire life, hiding from people who would use me for my power, but I should have been hiding from you, You were wrong about the world, and you were wrong about me, and I will never let you use my hair again.

Imposters have no power against the truth. Once she knows who she is Mother Gothel shows her true colors and is defeated, much like Satan in the desert. Once we know who we are. . . would it be the same for us? Jesus answers that question for us here in verse 32 when says, "do not be afraid little flock for it is your Father's pleasure to give you the kingdom." Remember  the source of this talk from Jesus, two brothers fighting over their inheritance. "It is your father's pleasure to give you the kingdom." It is your birthright as a child of God, for God truly loves, giving us all the answer we ever need. Do not be afraid little flock. . . for in Jesus name, we may say. . . God is real, and God is love, Alleluia, and Amen.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Lk 12:22-34). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[2] Chris Ledoux, "Riding for a Fall"
[3] Songwriters: Alan Irwin Menken, Glenn Evan Slater