Sunday, September 29, 2013


A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
September 29, 2013
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Luke 16: 19-31

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

19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 24 He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ 25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. 26 Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ 27 He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— 28 for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ 29 Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ 30 He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31 He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’ ” [1] 

I've been thinking about this passage all week, as I typically do, and I've been trying to look beyond the surface as I typically do, but this one seems to be pretty straight forward, especially, if you are looking for a moral or lesson about how we are to live. It's pretty simple, in this story there is a role reversal. The poor man Lazarus, who faced trials during this life was raised with Abraham, but the rich man, blessed in this life, with riches of plenty, but not a generous heart, ignoring poor Lazarus' need, finds himself in eternal torment, with no hope. The basic message of this parable jumps right out at us. We are to care for those around us, close the gap between us, reach out to raise up others, lest we find ourselves in much greater eternal need, and find ourselves with a huge chasm between ourselves and relief from our suffering. I do think that this is the basic message, but there are many more subtle poetic pieces that make this parable all that much more illuminating. I'd like to take a look at those, they do not necessarily change the basic message, but they can give us a little more insight into the beauty and depth of this all so seemingly simple parable.
First let's look at the rich man and exactly what it says about him. First off, obviously he was rich, but he was adorned in purple and fine linen, the clothes of royalty. The word here translated as "linen" is actually Byssus, which is fine fabric made from Egyptian flax, so linen doesn't quite cut it. This is no thread count top sheet. It was known for being very light, white and yellow in color, and ultra costly. So this guy has obvious wealth and political status, probably some earthly power as well, and he uses his wealth for his self, feasting sumptuously every day. He also has a gate. This is important because what is a gate for. It's an opening for a fence. . . and what is a fence for. . . to keep people out. There must be some division between him and the rest of the world. Now at this gate "lay a poor man covered in sores." What I find interesting here is not what I find, but what I don't find. Look at it, there is no further connection between these two men. The parable is silent on their encounters. Does Lazarus beg from the rich man? Does the rich man constantly ignore him, every time he goes by? Do they have any one on one encounter? Does the rich man have his men rough up Lazarus for loitering and laying around? Or is there just no connection? I like this last one, no connection, it seems to make the parable so much more hard hitting, because the rich man is completely oblivious of Lazarus. Here he is wasting away, and the rich man doesn't even know, let alone care. Lazarus is outside of his purview and not on his radar. His wealth has rendered the poor man to a different world. His walls keep him safe from any connection, between that outside world and the one inside the walls, safely isolated to eat those sumptuous meals each day.
Now let's look at the description of Lazarus. He's covered with sores is the first description. It's a cool Greek word there for the sores, "Helkos" you can even hear the hell in it, even if only in English. He's is also poor, destitute, without the means of sustaining his existence, both in wealth and in resources. He longed to satisfy his hunger with the crumbs from the rich man's table. Those are some pointed words as well. . .  Longed to satisfy. . . Not he did satisfy, but he longed to, he dreamed about the possibility, the Greek word even suggests lust, desire, and coveting, and not of dining sumptuously on what the rich man had on the table, but on merely satisfying his hunger, with the crumbs that fell to the floor. When your desire is set that low, that is hungry. Thankfully I've never been that hungry, I've lusted over someone else's dinner, but never have I lusted over the crumbs from that dinner. That is hungry. The falling from the table is another interesting word. It has the connotation of more than just innocently falling from the table, but also lying prostrate, in subjugation, as if penance for having done evil. Pretty vivid, and now for the dogs, the dogs who you'd expect to be lusting after the crumbs from the table, aren't, they actually pity the man. They lick his sores. Now I think there are two ways to take this. I have a dog, dogs are great but they can be gross, they can be sweet as can be and love you forever, but they also can be gross. Now in this case, the licking of the sores, is it the dogs being gross, or them being sweet as can be and pitying the man. Are they strangely attracted to the man's decaying flesh, or are they trying to dress and clean his wounds. I've seen dogs do both and either. I'm not sure, but either way it again is vivid. Either strange dogs are pitying him, making him lower than them, even a further step down than just waiting for the falling crumbs, or a rotten carcass, decomposing for their scavenging sensibilities. All those Hemingway stories about gangrenous wounds come to mind, like "Snows of Kiliamanjaro" where a man is slowly decomposing, even before death. To put it bluntly Lazarus has it pretty bad. There are some parallels to Job. . .and like Job, you can't even say, well at least he's got. . . yeah nothing, no bright side, just alive and that is all.
So here is the twist of fate. They both die, and their roles are reversed. Lazarus is resting in the bosom of Abraham, and the rich man finds himself in Hades. That in itself is interesting. Abraham, the Jewish Patriarch, on the one hand, and Hades, the Greek pagan God of the Underworld, whose name has also come to represent the place where Hades dwells. It is an interesting cultural anomaly there. And there may be something to it, especially when you take it in the context of the rest of this chapter of Luke, including the parable we looked at last week, where we were wondering what eternal homes Jesus was talking about that the dishonest wealth granted access. Is this another jab at the idolatry of paganism, the worship of gods crafted in the image of humans and not the other way around. Perhaps. . . again most of Jesus' teachings about money have an idolatrous bent to them.

But any way, the roles are reversed, the rich man is where he is, and Jesus describes his torment. Agony of flames, burning, and his tongue is also burning, dry, seeking anything that could cool and wet his anguish. It's described as tormenting, and the word is one used for torture, or the process of testing the purity of silver or gold. . . isn't that another interesting image, especially for the fires of Hades. And if that weren't enough physical anguish, he can also see Lazarus and Abraham. He can see the alternative, but he asks out for them to help, and Abraham says that there is a great chasm between them. Another cool image, isn't that exactly what the rich man had built around himself, with those walls and the gate. . . literally and figuratively, he made himself separate, and now he is completely separate. While Lazarus is resting, having been brought by angels to rest in the bosom of Abraham, whose name means father of many nations. Eternal communion, instead of eternal isolation. My favorite poem about the realities of death is parting by Emily Dickinson, it parallels this anguish. She writes:

MY LIFE closed twice before its close;
It yet remains to see
If Immortality unveil
A third event to me

So huge, so hopeless to conceive,
As these that twice befell.
Parting is all we know of heaven,
And all we need of hell

All we need of hell, do you see it? The isolation, the parting, the leaving behind the things that are really important, relationships with others, with God, that is all we need of Hell. Again Jesus' imagery is powerful. There is a chasm that now separates him. A chasm.
The words describing the difference between the situation for both men is also interesting. Abraham says to the rich man, during your life you got your good things, "good things" here is the word Agathos. . . blessed, related to the Greek word, Hagia, which means Holy. . . and then the bad, which he gets now, is kaka, great image in any language. . . kaka. But then it says that Lazarus on the other hand is comforted, and the comforted word is parakleitos. . .  sound familiar, yes paraklete is the word Jesus uses to describe the Holy Spirit, the great comforter. There is such great poetry in this parable.
The end is probably my favorite part though. It rings so true. Now the rich man finally has some empathy for others, and he wants his family and friends to learn their lesson before it is too late. He wants Lazarus to go to them and warn them, tell them the hell that they face, but Abraham says no. He says, they have Moses and the Prophets, if that isn't enough then even sending the dead to them as a messenger will do no good, they will not listen. If they don't listen to Moses and the Prophets, even raising the dead won't make them listen. Wow. He wants to send Jacob Marley, he wants to send the Ghost Riders in the sky, he wants to warn his people, but Jesus says it will do no good. I'm reminded of the good Friday sermon I did the year before last, the idea that Jesus is on trial, and no matter what, he is convicted every time. Because we just won't listen, we have to be shown, and even then we miss it.
Why Moses and the Prophets though? Is the Old Testament that important? Isn't the New Testament the real crux, no pun intended, of the story? Maybe, but the Old Testament, Moses and the Prophets, puts things in perspective for us, puts Jesus in perspective, allows us to see his message in the correct light. In Sunday School we've been studying the Old Testament, and now this week we finally get into the new testament. For the last three months we have journeyed through the Prophets, looking at the unique messages that they send. Yes many of them point to Jesus, they predict a messiah, who he will be, where he will come from, and what he will do, but they also do so much more. They are the story of a people wrestling with the issues of where and who God is, does God care, is God in charge, sovereign, in control? Are these bad things proof that God is not in control, or are they proof that God is? There are many different perspectives of the people, but the prophets repeat a message. . . yes God is real, yes God is just, and there just is no substitute for following the laws of Moses, believing in God, and serving him, following his commandments. Laws for living in the community, something that requires our eyes to be open to those living in community around us, not putting up walls that divide, not putting a safe chasm around us, but embracing in love those around us. . . Loving because God is in control, is just, and loves. This is a vivid multilayered parable with a very simple message. It's that of Psalm 1

1     Happy are those
who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
or sit in the seat of scoffers;
2     but their delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law they meditate day and night.
3     They are like trees
planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper.
4     The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
5     Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
6     for the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish. [2]

Happiness is not always measured in things of this world. But that wind that drives away leaves a chasm in its place. Let us instead be planted by those streams of water, rooted in love, yielding that very fruit.








[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Lk 16:19-31). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[2]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Ps 1:1-6). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Sunday, September 22, 2013


A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
September 22, 2013
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Luke 16: 1-13

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.

16 Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. 2 So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ 3 Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. 4 I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ 5 So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6 He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ 7 Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ 8 And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. 9 And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.
10 “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. 11 If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth,  who will entrust to you the true riches? 12 And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 13 No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”[1]  

There are some parables that are difficult because of what they teach us, and the challenging nature of the claim of their teaching. It seems the last few weeks we have been looking at some of those. This one may fit in that category, but mostly this one is challenging because it is confusing. It's kinda all over the place, and the obvious take away, doesn't seem all that Christ-like, in its claim, it doesn't seem to really hold people to the high standard of love that so many of his other parables do. Look at some of the details, dishonest wealth, children of the light, I mean Jesus says at one point, if you have not been faithful with dishonest wealth, no one will entrust you with true riches. . . really dishonest wealth, why are we troubling ourselves with dishonest wealth? Is it possible to be faithful with dishonest wealth? Isn't that a paradox? What are you supposed to do with dishonest wealth? Turn it in right? Isn't that the boyscout way? It's very troubling.
I think the trouble starts because we tend to look to God to play one of the roles in Jesus' parables, especially when there is a master. . . or a father character. We typically take the bossman character to be God, and then the actions of the employee to be us in our relationship with God within the kingdom of heaven. Think about it, isn't that the standard? There is the parable of the talents, master gives them out expects people to put them to good use, standard translation, God gives gifts expects us to use them in bettering his kingdom. Another example, Master puts his servant in charge of watching his house until he returns, remaining ever vigilant. God is returning, Jesus is returning, we are to be vigilant until he returns. We don't know when that will happen so we need to keep watch. Again and again we see that pattern, so that is our standby viewpoint for how to parse all of them.
But when we go that way here, I think we are in error because this is the way it goes. Master gives us some responsibility, but we are lazy about it, so we find a way to do the job, rather being willing to beg or starve, we find a way, not for the benefit of our master, but for our own benefit, then the master sees our success, our ingenuity and praises us, giving us that second chance. The Master praises us for being shrewd and figuring a way out of a bad situation, following up irresponsible behavior with dishonest behavior. Then there is that weird part about the children of the light. . . It all just doesn't fit, especially when we come up to the overall end, the moral of sorts, of the story, that a servant cannot serve two masters, not able to serve God and wealth. If we stick with God being the master here, it seems that you can serve God and wealth as long as you do it shrewdly, and as long it's dishonest wealth anyway. How does such dishonest self preservation fit into the concept of love. It goes against every other definition of love Jesus puts forth. To proud to beg, instead cheat, show shrewdness, just to take care of self, using others, and this is rewarded? See this simplistic first take understanding of this parable really does fall apart at the seams when  you break the surface. It was amazing how many sermons and studies I saw in my research this week that were trying to force this line of thinking and ignoring the conflicting details. Even that old standard, Matthew Henry, seems to suggest that we are all dishonest employees, who find a way, better late than never, and despite bad intentions back into the loving embrace of the master. But why then all the stuff about wealth, money, and serving two masters.
I see this parable very differently. I don't see the character of the master in the story to be God at all, but rather pointing to a real human relationship, and the way that human beings work things out with each other according to human standards. A description of the way the world works, and then finally at the end a rebuke about how it isn't the way that the kingdom of heaven works. So there is this employee who is wasteful and worthless, so the master calls him to task about it. Summons him to him to try to figure the situation out, but he doesn't fire right then, instead he asks for more information. The master wants to get all of his ducks in a line, he wants to make sure that his figures are right, that the rumor, the I heard tell you are squandering my stuff, is actually accurate. He gives him 24 hours to report back. Now its obvious that the employee was squandering, or misrepresenting, or stealing, or laundering, something dishonest is going on, so he realizes he's probably fired, he needs to try and figure this all out. He wonders how can I use my position while I've still got it to win some friends so I will not have to beg. I'll give out some favors, while I still have a little pull, to make sure I never will have to humble myself. I'm going to play while I'm still a player. And so he does, he gives all of the people who owe his master a break on what they owe, so they are happy and pay right way, but a lesser amount, the master is happy, because all of a sudden this employee who he thought he would have to fire is now doing a good job of bringing in money, so all is well. Problem averted, right, all should be well. Children of this generation are more shrewd than the children of the light. . . yes those are the words of the master, but are they Christ's, are they Gods? Does God find that shrewdness in this case is a good and noble distinction, one to which we should all strive. Notice shrewdness is not a characteristic of the children of the light, but instead this generation. Notice also, Jesus doesn't say as he does in some other parables, go and do likewise. No he doesn't, and then he says, make friends for yourself with dishonest wealth so that they may welcome you into their eternal homes. . . they, not me. Is there sarcasm there? Is Jesus talking about eternal homes that don't exist? Go and make friends with your dishonest wealth, and go find eternal rest with them. Then that puts the next part, about faithfulness and dishonesty with wealth in a different light as well. Faithfulness in little things is akin to faithfulness in big things. Intentions matter, honesty matters, righteous dealings matter, not necessarily on earth, you can always manipulate your way out of a situation on earth, but in the kingdom of God, where things are real, it actually matters. How do you use your tools? Whom do you serve? These are the important questions?
Jesus closes this parable with the important words of you cannot serve two, not money and God. We have to look at what money is, especially in the context of this parable, but in general too. Money is simply the means by which we trade. It is a marker that allows us to exchange different goods and services, all on an equal playing field. It is in essence supposed to be simply that, but we all know in reality it can be very different. It is a marker that we use to make the exchange of goods easier, and therefore it is a tool. If you look up "tool" in the dictionary, you will find it to be an "artificial element for facilitation of action" in other words, things that we make to make our work more easy. So money as a tool is supposed to be a way to make the exchange of goods and services easier, but how often does it become instead a tool for manipulation and power, making things easier for those who are shrewd.
Look at how the employee in the parable uses money. He uses his boss's money to manipulate the people to become his friend, so that he will not have to beg. . . in doing this he makes his master happy as well? Why, because he is being shrewd. He is using money as a tool to manipulate. It's all part of the game, its beneficial because it sustains the game. It sustains the master's game and it sustains the employees game, it's shrewd, and is the opposite of begging. Isn't it interesting that Jesus is quick to include the detail that the man is much too prideful to beg. Begging doesn't fit the game, he'd rather steal and be dishonest, because at least it fits the game, he's still a player then, he's still in control. There is nothing to be gained, no give and take, no quid pro quo, nothing can be gained from giving to or being a beggar. It's outside of the game, and therefore no place for the shrewd.
Here is why I think Jesus is not raising up any of the characters in this parable as and example of behavior, nor a God figure, but rather painting a picture of the world's game. It is all about manipulation and control. The kind of artificial control that money gives. It is system of dishonesty rather than truth, and leaves people clinging to illusions, illusions of control and security. Tools. . .  if money is a tool, how can it become something that we serve rather than something that serves us? It is something we make to make things easier for us, but it ends up giving us a different understanding of reality, warped away from the truth.
Let me tell you another parable. We are now 16 trillion dollars in debt, and we praise ourselves and our leaders for being shrewd enough to keep the system running. We celebrate the next continuing resolution, then next debt ceiling increase, we can't stand anything but shrewdness in our leaders, work it out, make it work, compromise, keep the system going, by any means necessary. With each faithful use of dishonest wealth we give more and more faithful assurance that the job will be done well, we give much more faith in the system, that the system will solve our problems. The system, our system, keep it going it is our tool for success, apply it and apply it to more things. The old saying rings true again, when all you have is a hammer everything looks like a nail, right, what is the solution to all of our problems, throw some money at it, get it to be a part of the system, but we see all around us that the system is no longer a tool, but rather something we are constantly forced to serve. Is this what Jesus' parable points us towards, does Jesus want to reward and praise our shrewdness? Is this generation one to be raised up on account of Shrewdness? Or would he rather us be children of the light?
Shrewdness, playing the game just doesn't seem to stand up to being a child of the light, a child of truth, a servant of God. We just can't serve both can we? How do we use our tools, for manipulation, sustenance, security, feeding the system, or for love, selflessness, sacrifice and service? It is a difficult question in our system driven world. But it is the one Jesus compells us to ask of ourselves, when he says that we cannot serve two masters. Behind the parable is the question, which will you serve? O God, help us to be, become, and remain, then children of the light. Amen.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Lk 16:1-13). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The One

The One
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
September 15, 2013
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Luke 15: 1-10 

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.

15 Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
3 So he told them this parable: 4 “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? 5 When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6 And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ 7 Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
8 “Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? 9 When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ 10 Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” [1]  

As difficult and challenging as last week's scripture passage was, with the cost of discipleship, we follow it up this week with a much more comforting text, at least on the surface. There is grace, there is care, there is love, there is God reaching out to the lost sheep, showing care without end, showing us that God will go to great lengths to care for us, to find us, even when we go astray. These are actually the first two parables of a set of three. The third in the set is the Prodigal Son, which builds on the same theme: should we ever go astray, God will be there seeking us out, welcoming us back with open arms, rejoicing that now the herd is back together because the one lost sheep has been restored. It's comforting. It's overflowing with mercy, grace, forgiveness and love. But there is a challenge to it, and that is because the audience is not the one, but the many, the herd, the elder brothers, the scribes and the pharisee's. Jesus is talking to the ones who see Jesus reaching out to sinners and are quick to say, "That's not fair!" We find ourselves often when we are faced with this passage, wondering which we are, which do we see ourselves as. Are we the many, herded together, the flock, or are we the one?
It's interesting that it actually matters. I love that it matters. It doesn't matter in most walks of life. Most world religions even don't build up the individual, or the one. Many of the eastern ones explicitly value the collective rather instead of the one. The one making waves threatens the group, so must be either stopped, ignored, or isolated, or silenced. But yet here, Jesus is claiming the one has value, the one matters, the one, not the group, but the one. So much of the world's game is not based on the one, but instead the many. It isn't easy to be the one. The majority rules, the herd votes, and the one will lose, every time, but is the one always wrong? How many times is it that the one is often actually right, on the right side of truth? How often is the lone voice crying in the wilderness the one that's actually making a whole lot of sense, fighting against the tide? In our Adult Sunday School class, we have been walking through the Bible, and have been engrossed in the Prophets for the last few months. Each prophet seems to stand alone against the herd, against the rising storm of the majority, against the much louder voices of the masses. One by one they come forward, Isaiah speaking of the one nation standing firm against all the much stronger nations, the one suffering servant, giving life for all. Jeremiah, the one voice of reason warning of the impending doom. Ezekiel the one voice reminding the newly exiled Jews that God is still in control. Amos trying to remind folks to be faithful when things are going well, and Joel trying to get people back on track when they have gone very bad. Jonah runs away, Daniel stands firm, Elijah is one against hundreds. Each one up against tremendous risk, each one very much on their own, each one thought of by those in the herd as very very lost. The list goes on and on.
A more well known example from the Old Testament is Moses. Having led the Israelites out of slavery, he heads up to the mountain to receive the law directly from the Lord, but he's gone too long, at least for the many. They begin to get restless. And they begin to get extra religious, but not in a good way. With Moses gone, and God's presence within him, seemingly away, the group convinces each other that Moses is lost, that he has led them astray, that he isn't coming back, that God has also left them, so in their restlessness they make a new god, a replacement, a golden calf. . . the one is with God, and the herd is lost. Connect that story here to the Pharisees, Jesus's audience when he tells this parable about the lost sheep and the lost coin. They would call themselves the heirs of Moses, the keepers of the law, but are they standing with God or have they made their own, for here has God come in their midst, and they are grumbling, wondering why things are this way, why it's not fair? If Jesus is the messiah and come to them, why is he not acting like they think he should? Why is he with the sinners and tax collectors instead of them? We're right, we're on the right so, ask everybody they'll tell you. Could all of them be wrong? Could the system be wrong? No of course not Jesus, you are wrong, what are you thinking? Have they shaped for themselves a golden calf, having found God absent in their lives, building a new God for themselves in their own image.
But Jesus triples down. He tells three parables all pointing to the importance of the individual, the perfect value of the one. If you look through the Old Testament characters you don't find perfect sheep, but flawed ones, with God providing the only perfection. It is the same with the disciples. It is the same with us. Again grace becomes the system. I talked last week a little about my teaching strategy and philosophy, of raising a high bar and including to the best of my ability grace. It came up during this week, as I was explaining to my students the way they would be graded. I told them how hard it is to fail my class. It's set up that way on purpose. It's hard to fail. I have this system where I grade all of their writing for me, paragraph by paragraph, looking at each on its own merit. Each paragraph then has to be of a certain quality, with a new and unique chance of scoring really high. But the ten point grading system begins with 0, for you guessed it nothing, then 1 for writing a word, 2 for writing a sentence, 3 for writing a sentence on the subject, 4 for writing a paragraph on the class as a whole, 5 for writing a paragraph on whatever topic the question was on, but still somehow not answering the question. Yes it sounds like that's pretty ridiculously easy, but you gotta remember, they are all failing grades, but a five is a 50%, failing, but 50% is much better than a zero, so just by being half way present you can fail, but only barely, setting your success up to fit into the average, if you are at all remotely answering at least part of the question you'll get a 6 which is passing. Then there is a 4 point scale of quality, 7-10. So it's hard, it's really hard to fail, you have to actively work at failing, but on the other hand it's hard to get an A too. It's hard to be exceptional, but I told them, the reason I make it hard to fail is not because I want them all to get processed through successfully, not at all, instead it's about creating a system that rewards risk, that rewards extra effort, that rewards really putting yourself out there. I think that's what Jesus does when he offers us grace.
Remember how the heroes of the Old Testament are pushing the edge, often out on their own, I think God wants us there working beyond the norm, on the outside of the herd, where we can be the most dangerous for good, where we can really be with him. Grace takes failing out of the equation, doesn't it, makes it no longer an issue. No longer. . . Some students, like the Pharisees may look to the system and find that it isn't fair. They work really hard to get a safe 8, and it's only 3 measly points beyond the person on the outside who couldn't even answer the question. I talk to students all the time, how come I keep getting 8's aren't I doing what you asked me to do. What can I to get that better mark? The answer is always the same. Always. Take a risk, put yourself on the line, do more than you ever thought you could. They always say, but what if I get it wrong? So what I say, how many points are you going to lose? 1 at most. Come on show me something. Show me your thoughts. Show me you, put yourself into the answer, that's what I want to see.
Do you think that is what God wants from us? For us to put ourselves on the line, to risk, to be on the edge. But what if I get lost? I'll find you. What if I go astray? I'll corral you back in. What if I fail? How can you, for I am there, and I've set up the system, and I made you, and I know you better than you know yourself.
The Call to Worship was from Psalm 139, I want to look at that Psalm more closely, let's read it.

1     O Lord, you have searched me and known me.  ---- me, you, me, each of us
2     You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.    ---- So how could we get lost? 

3     You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.     ----- Even before we know 

4     Even before a word is on my tongue,
O Lord, you know it completely.      ------ Even before we speak 

5     You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me. ---- God hems us in, so why should we do that for ourselves? 

6     Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is so high that I cannot attain it. ------ We can't, bet we can strive, growing closer and closer, approaching.  

7     Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence? ------ still afraid of getting lost? 

8     If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. ----- even self inflicted failure can't separate us 

9     If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
10     even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.  --------- so where can you be lost 

11     If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night,”
12     even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,  .
for darkness is as light to you. ------------------ outside of our perceived limits 

13     For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb. -----------  inside and out, before us, after us 

14     I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.  ---------------- he is a pretty good craftsman, don't you think 

15     My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth. -------- Do you think that's a God who cares for each and knows each 

16     Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed.  ----- Do we each have a chapter? 

17     How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them! ------ imagine all of his thoughts of us
18     I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
I come to the end —I am still with you.    ---- can you count?[2]

God knows us, completely, God made us completely, all parts, each of us, and God will go to every length to find us when we are lost, all of us, each of us. What else should I fear? What is left?
I quoted Bonhoeffer last week too, and will do so again, he once wrote this: 

“Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies. At the end all his disciples deserted him. On the Cross he was utterly alone, surrounded by evildoers and mockers. For this cause he had come, to bring peace to the enemies of God. So the Christian, too, belongs not in the seclusion of a cloistered life but in the thick of foes. There is his commission, his work. 'The kingdom is to be in the midst of your enemies. And he who will not suffer this does not want to be of the Kingdom of Christ; he wants to be among friends, to sit among roses and lilies, not with the bad people but the devout people. O you blasphemers and betrayers of Christ! If Christ had done what you are doing who would ever have been spared' (Luther).” 

Look to Christ's example. . . again. Not with a great group, nor a great multitude, at the end, for all had abandoned him, he was alone, surrounded by those deemed evil doers and mockers, Jesus, the one, fitting all the descriptors within Psalm 139, too, same as us, but was so much more, was also the one true holy God. The one. . . let us aspire to be like him, unafraid to be alone, and like him, never truly alone, for God was in him, and will never leave our side. Let us not fear getting lost, but to celebrate being found, with all of our brothers and sisters, uniquely each children of God, in his image, many many ones. Amen.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Lk 15:1-10). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[2]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Ps 139:1-24). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Cost

The Cost
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
September 8, 2013
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Luke 14: 25-33

 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.

 25 Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, 26 “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. 27 Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. 28 For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? 29 Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, 30 saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ 31 Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32 If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. 33 So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.[1]  

There are certainly some difficult aspects of this text from Luke. Hating father, mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. This is difficult for sure. And then Jesus follows that with whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. Harsh difficult words. Conditions and standards for being a disciple of Christ. I've heard many pastors preach this passage and most try to down play to some extent the hate the family member stuff, down play the cross, and make it all more manageable. There is certainly shock factor in what Jesus is saying, but I don't think we should jump to down play those words. I tried, I looked up the Greek word that is translated as hate, but it can either mean hate or detest. . . I was hoping to find it to mean something like, like less, you know, like your father, mother, sister, brother less than being a disciple, but instead I found hate and detest. . .take your pick, they are both harsh. There is not a whole lot of difference between them. It is hard and difficult stuff. But so is being a disciple of Christ. Look at what you are following, look at who you are being taught by, look at the example that is set for you, Jesus Christ, ultimate love, ultimate sacrifice, of ultimate self. . . complete. This is what the cross is, this is what Christ does on the cross, this is where we are to follow. It comes at quite a cost.
I tell you life seems to always fit what I am studying from the Bible each week. I can't tell you how many times where I've been slapped in the face with life's truth, true teaching coming through in the context of what is going on. I believe enough in providence and call to see things as meant to be, and that there is a hand in what I'm doing, but I also just think that the teachable moments of the Gospels is just so rich. The teachings are so applicable, mostly because the characters are so human, and Jesus knows humans so well. Every word from Jesus's lips seems to penetrate our very soul, touching on our tendencies, our hopes, our fears, our desires, and our weaknesses, before we even imagine it, he is always two steps ahead, which consequently again and again, the disciples and our hearts are two steps behind.
It happened this week for me yesterday. I had originally when I was putting the bulletin together the other day, and the newsletter together last week, planned on calling this sermon "Carrying the Cross." It is the set of words that jumped out at me first. I had planned to talk about all the ways that we carry the cross, all the things that we do that are carrying the cross, the fact that it's when we put ourselves completely out there, we sacrifice ourselves, we love without holding back, without thought for self, without worry over outcome, without care for the reaction of the other person, without trying to manipulate, we give. I had thought all week about some discussions I had with a colleague over at Blue Ridge a couple of weeks ago. We were discussing our philosophies of teaching. I was talking about how mine begins with faith, faith in the student's faith in their potential, and that with that faith I have to be willing to also let them fall, let them fail, that the type of failing they will do in school is painless enough, failing in school is a teachable moment, sometimes more teachable than success. I told him how no matter what they did my faith in them would not falter, with every screw up, with every less than adequate effort, my expectation, the bar raised higher and higher, and my belief in them would not change, that through that level of faith the student finds confidence in himself, and the confidence is real because he did it. On his own, high expectations and grace, unwavering faith in the student's abilities no matter the outcome. I remember he said to me, "but what about when they let you down, that's quite a risk, don't you want to ring their neck, don't you take it personally, don't you find that all your work was for nothing? Don't you feel like you failed? Don't you feel devastated and disillusioned and depressed? Don't you, I asked him, "who is it about?" Is it about you and your effort, or is about the student? How much can the student learn from that failure, how much can the student learn from your unwavering faith in him? Why do you feel depressed, is it because the game is over? Why? Life goes on. . . these moments are small, but your faith in them and your love for them lasts. It's the danger of having a philosophy of teaching based on Christianity and based on love. Now, of course I get frustrated, and of course I get upset, and of course I waver in my faith of my students, but those aren't my best days, they are my worst ones, the ones I'd like to have back, see it's about raising the bar higher and higher and allowing for grace, for them, and for myself. Grace that does not change the standards.  
I was going to include other examples of how much people give. They give and they give every week teaching Sunday School, putting their heart and soul into the lesson into the children, and no one else does, no one else is as dedicated as  you are and the kids don't show up. On  your worst day you get upset, feel like you aren't making a difference, feel the weight of the cross, but then you remember your efforts aren't about you, and the best of you doesn't mind giving all. You are the only one who seems to sign up to bring fellowship, you are the only one who remembers to light or put out the candles, you are the only one who shows up on time for choir, you are the only one, on your worst day you get discouraged, but on your best you realize it isn't about you and you give freely out of love. We've all been there, I can go on and on, carrying the cross is doing your thing, filling your call, giving your all, for no other reason than to give it, no other end in mind than trying to fulfill the will of God, step by step, inch by inch frustration by frustration, and your friends and family tell you that it's not fair, they tell you to slow down, they sympathize with you, and provide you with excuses, and tell you to get someone else to do it, but Jesus says detest that, hate that voice that tells you that you can't do it, that  you shouldn't do it, that voice that cries it isn't fair and it's too hard, and no one cares, and follow me, carry that cross, forgive them, they are caring for you, but they know not what they do.
That is what I was going to say. . .
But on the way to Hargrave Military Academy, jammed on a bus with no leg room, fighting off motion sickness as I was trying to fill the boredom of the 2 and 1/2 hour trip by reading, I decided to take another look at this passage, once more fill my head with Christ's words so that I could ruminate, and ponder, and think, and let it marinate in the context of one more day, a beautiful day, 80 degrees and clear, opening day of the State Title Defense of the Blue Ridge School Football Program. So I looked again, and carrying the cross isn't what jumped off the page, instead another word did. . . cost. All around the carrying the cross line is cost. How much it cost to be a disciple, and how most people aren't going to make the payment. Carrying the cross isn't about a license to be a disciple, it isn't about qualifications, it isn't a prerequisite, it's just what it costs. Look at the text, it's as if Jesus is a loan officer, and he is interviewing the people around him, to see if they can make the payments. You're building a tower, do you have the supplies? Do you have what it takes, not just to start the project but to finish it? He's not just looking for a down payment, he's insuring that the payments will be made later, all is required, do you have all to give? You are going to war, do you have enough men? Or should you go and try to sue for peace? Sure peace like that has a cost too. . . those chains again. So I'm thinking more and more about cost. . . cost . . . cost. So I quickly text message Gerri from the bus, asking her, if she hasn't printed out the bulletin yet, could she change the sermon title from "Carrying the cross to "The Cost." And Gerri on the golf course says sure thing, what do you think about using the picture of the newly painted front door on the bulletin, I say go for it. Now I'm not sure where I'm going with it at this point, but I know that it should be more about cost than just the cross.
Little did I know a few hours later my eyes would be open to what Jesus is talking about. Why is Jesus so up front with these people about what it takes, what it will take, how much they will have to give? First I want to look at the context. Remember last week we looked at the beginning of this chapter, where Jesus was at the head Pharisees house eating the Sabbath dinner, but while he was there he healed a man who had dropsy, and then questioned the Pharisees about their perceived status, challenging them on just what it takes, what it is all about, what it really means to serve God, making the Pharisees challenge their perceived place with in God's eyes in contrast to how they saw themselves. Then between that and our reading for today, Jesus tells another parable, this one about people being invited to the feast, but all finding some excuse not to go. Everybody's intention was to go to the feast, but no one actually showed, it finishes with Jesus saying. . . Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled. 24 For I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner." So if you are keeping score, Luke chapter 14, status, invites, excuses, and now cost. Do you see the building connection? Jesus is not holding back, he is letting his followers know what they are following. At this point Jesus is very popular, crowds are following him, but big numbers don't always get big results.
So Blue Ridge football a year ago had success like the school has not known in 19 years, state championship, small team, low numbers, and big success. Now a year later, we've had a pretty big influx of new players. People want to be a part of it. It's cool to be a part of it. Everyone wants to look good in their jerseys and helmets, everyone wants to be out there seen in the blue and white. But we just weren't sure. We went to Woodberry last week, and didn't play well, jitters, maybe, early, certainly, teachable moment, sure, but we've got talent, we got numbers, we'll be okay. And then our game yesterday happened. We started with a senior upset with not being sent out as a captain for the coin toss, so we suspended him for a quarter. . . selfish, yeah. And that was just the beginning. A high school football game is 4 quarters and 48 minutes, I saw glimpses of greatness overshadowed by more selfishness. Kids taking plays off, kids not willing to block for their teammates, routes being run by receivers half speed, lazy tackles, lazy pursuit, no enthusiasm, and a team who was supposed to walk through their first game, just by showing up got thudded 38-20. And watching it, as soon as it was over I thought, Cost. Now I hadn't made the connection yet with the scripture, that would come a little later, but I just couldn't stop, Cost, these kids did not know how much it costs to win football games, they did not know how hard it was for those guys to put together a state championship run last year, they had no idea what it takes to play football well, how selfless you need to be, how much you need to put in work to help the other guy, how much if you are worried about yourself it falls apart, it falls apart quickly, and it falls apart ugly. No one depends on each other, people start doing their own thing, and it falls apart, trust breaks down, team disappears, and all that is left is a bunch of individuals running around, or loafing around, getting beat. And then start the excuses. . . 
I am not one to dwell on the relationships between sports and life. I find that most connections are often cliche: trite and over used, but this one jumped up and hit me in the face. Jesus knows that the only way for people to truly follow him, all the way is if they give up self first. Love demands it. Love demands you to be the best you can be, with no excuses, built up, fully operational, working at capacity, but not for self, for others. When Jesus is asked, what is the greatest commandment, he quotes Deuteronomy, the schema, Deuteronomy 6, Love the Lord with your all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength, in english, but in Hebrew its stronger. With all your heart, Labob, in Hebrew, means your inner parts, your guts, the deepest within you, Nephesh, is translated usually as soul, but it means your essence the very stuff of your life, and the last meod, is translated might, literally means to your last breath, every thing you've got, as if you've travelled across the desert only to collapse because you can't go another step, and God does the rest, that is meod. These are the words Jesus alludes to when he answers the question, to what the greatest commandment is. Literally your all, the most gritty inside of you, your spiritual essence, and the full and total extent of your physical strength. That is what it costs, and it is what Jesus gives, on the cross, and where we are to follow.
I couldn't help thinking at the end of that game yesterday, once I had made the connection between what I had been studying all week and our collapse, that we should have told the boys what it cost. We should have let them know, but how could I as a coach communicate to them how expensive wins are in football? How much energy is required, how many times you have to put your body on the line, how many times you have to play with an injury, how many times, when you think you need a break, and you look over to the sideline and realize that there is no one there, and you have to suck it up and try to play anyway, even when you feel you have nothing left. How many times you have to run your pattern knowing that you aren't getting the ball, how many times you have to block so that someone else gets the glory and you get the bruise. . . how could we have told them ahead of time? In someways I think we failed them in that, but not telling them. Maybe we were afraid they would quit, maybe we knew deep down they couldn't rise to the challenge, maybe we thought they already  knew, maybe we thought they'd figure it out on their own, I think that was our hope. Well they learned it now, they learned that it takes more than they were willing to give. They know it now for sure. Its funny, Jesus does both, he tells us, and it seems he knows we aren't going to show up just from being told. . .  remember, none of those invited will enjoy my dinner. . .and the end of this text: none of  you can be my disciple unless you give up your possessions. And from just being told, Jesus goes to the cross alone, all of his disciples are gone, even Peter, they are all gone. They had to be shown what it takes, and then they knew. Luke is also the writer of Acts, you will find that the disciples learned it once they were shown, once they felt it, once they saw for themselves the cost.
And so in someways I'm back to what I was going to say. Jesus is teaching us, with full faith in us, even though we go astray, even though we falter, even though we don't seem to have enough, he knows and has faith that we can, and will continue to give us grace until we realize it, but you see grace seems to be on this side, on the other side of labad, nephesh, and meod-heart, soul, and mind, the bar stays high, the cost stays real, but all within the faith of grace.
This text is subtitled in most Bibles the "Cost of Discipleship" Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a book by the same name. His words tell of the amazing cost that a disciple must pay, and his life paid the cost, giving all in resistance to the Nazi regime in Germany, giving his life, his all. I'd like to close this sermon with a quotation from "Cost of Discipleship," and it is also printed in your bulletin.

“Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: 'Ye were bought at a price', and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.”

Costly grace, grace with the bar set high, the meeting place between love for us and faith in us. . . may our faith in Christ build us up, so that we can truly follow. Amen.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Lk 14:25-33). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.