Wednesday, October 30, 2013

To the Angel Taken Too Soon

To the Angel Taken Too Soon
Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
For Abigail on her 30th birthday:

Please know little angel that when we cry,
Because we had to see you die,
Instead of having you here with us,
It’s not because we do not trust. 

We know you’re in a better place,
Where the sun never sets upon your face,
Where light’s radiance always shines
And eternal health never declines, 

Where sense is made of every conceit
And hearts all keep their steady beat,
Where love’s embrace is always tight
And every feeling you have is right. 

But here for us it’s not like that
Here faith we seem to need work at
Here we long, for we cannot see
What our hearts should know to be

We long for our arms to be full again
We long to laugh as we did then,
We long for the times we cried together,
Not alone, adrift, a falling feather, 

For alone we feel especially now
We need to get a glimpse somehow
Of truth surpassing what we see,
Can you speak a little word to me? 

And from our memory we hear,
“You’re in God’s hands, so never fear,
I showed you how to laugh and live
And that love is something that you give.”

And so little angel taken too soon,
We’ll try to live your happy tune,
Our Faith inside is now awake
Though our heart feels like it’s going to break.

and here is a sequel, written two years later. . . 
Two Years an Angel too Soon

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Difference Is Why

The Difference Is Why
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
October 29, 2013
at Gibson Memorial Chapel
Blue Ridge School, St. George, VA
Genesis 4: 8-10

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.

Of all the standards on the Code of Conduct it seems like we talk about the one that says, we will be our Brother's Keeper, by far, the most. It became a theme of last year. We talked about it all the time. It even became like a slogan. I remember hearing the phrase, "That was kind of a Brother's Keeper type thing" on many occasions, or hey, "Brother's Keeper" and every one was like, "yeah, totally, Brother's Keeper." It was so prevalent that I asked my students in their final exam exactly what they thought about the whole idea. I worded the question like this:

We have hammered “brother’s keeper” into your head so much this year that it may have become merely an empty slogan. Has it? What does it mean to you? Do we have a responsibility to care for each other? What constitutes a “brother”? What does “keeping” mean? Is the phrase, “brother’s keeper” the best representation of the idea of caring for others?

You'd be surprised at how varied the responses were, even after talking about it so much, going to show that talking about something constantly isn't always the best way to make a point. Sometimes, less is more, but even so I chose to speak on this topic today, perhaps from a different angle. I have a reputation for making people think, challenging students, I hope to do so today.
Before I get to some of the exam responses, do you all know where the phrase "Brother's Keeper" comes from? Yes it is the Bible, but no for you Tarantino fans it does not come from Ezekiel 25:17. No it comes from Genesis 4, the story of Cain and Abel, yes the account of the first murder in the Bible.

8 Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let us go out to the field.” And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him. 9 Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” 10 And the Lord said, “What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground![1]  

There it is right there, from the voice of the murderer asking, "Am I my Brother's Keeper?" and the question remains unanswered. God does not answer yes, and as I said before, there is no, "Blessed is he, who in the name of charity and good will, shepherd's the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother's keeper and the finder of lost children." Nope Tarantino made that up, or copied it from a kung fu movie, the story of Cain and Abel is it for Brother's Keeper in the Bible, so the Bible is at best inconclusive on the idea of whether we are really to be our Brother's Keeper, Psalm 121 v 5, includes the same Hebrew word we translate here Keeper, the word "Shamar," but in your own time I invite you to look up there, who is the subject of that verb in the context of the Psalm, perhaps a better Biblical interpretation of who keeps. But I'm not here to talk about the possible religious ideas that may divide us, but rather the identity that we all share in common.
We all are members of this community, and we have all adopted the Code of Conduct as our behavioral guide for living within this community, the high goals and standards we seek to live up to. We all have decided that this community of learning would be a better place, and would produce better young men, if they would learn, adopt, and exemplify the idea of Brother's Keeper. We see it as part of developing men of character, so its Biblical tradition, though interesting is not binding on how we see it and apply it in our lives. So how do we see it at work within our community? This is the heart of what truly matters after all.
Here are two examples of what some of my students last year said, one of them is positive and one of them is negative, but they reflect the two general trends of the responses I got:

·         First the positive one - “I love that they say be a brother’s keeper here because that’s what I look at a lot of the boys here as, my brothers, and even though we fight and don’t get along, I would always have their back no matter what.” 

This is typical of the positive ones, totally all about it, completely bought in, I've got my brother's back. That very phrase was repeated often in the 40+ responses I got. There were many just like this one, but they all seemed to be lacking in detail of real situations, real challenges, real wrestling with what it would really mean. But here is a negative one, also typical of what the negative ones say, and this one from a midyear student, which may be a better example of some of the true underlying perception of the standard, around campus:

·         As a new student, it was explained to me that brother's keeper means telling on people when they do something wrong. I had thought brother's keeper had a good meaning, but it has been lost to this other meaning.

There were many that dealt with this idea of telling on your fellow students who are doing something wrong. Within the context of these responses, two words are commonly thrown around: snitch and rat. Many of the people who had problem with this way of understanding Brother's Keeper raised this issue. The I don't want to be a snitch, or I'll never be a no good rat. There was even one response that was cynical enough to suggest that the faculty want students to snitch on each other just to get the "bad kids" in trouble, or to create spies in the school, like some kind of totalitarian secret police, always trying to put us on lock down, another structure of control to rebel from.
I get it, I understand that often there is distrust between student and faculty. I understand that it often comes with the territory of rules and authority, and a little rebelliousness is natural, good even, but there is a very important lesson here to be learned about the difference between being a Brother's Keeper and being a Rat. Though there are many ways to be your brother's keeper it's this point that I wish to make today because I've heard it talked about the most from you, and I have seen it applied this way the most.
My classes have always been ripe with discussion. We engage in many different aspects of life, and character, and philosophy, all centered around the ins outs and pitfalls of being a man in this crazy world. Often the discussions leave the literature behind and involve talking about real topical issues. There have been many times when the topic of ratting out friends has come up. I remember there was one where a few kids had been expelled, they were seniors, I was teaching seniors, and they had all been friends, my entire class and these boys, also in the class, and friends with them all was the prefect who turned them in. And he was taking it pretty hard, both from himself and from his classmates. I told them the same thing I'm going to tell you:
The difference between being a rat and being your brother's keeper is subtle. It's subtle because the action, the thing you do, in most cases is exactly the same. Both may involve turning in your friends, the difference and the only difference between the two is who you do it for and why? If you do it to protect yourself, you're a no good dirty rat. If you do it to make yourself feel better, you are a no good dirty rat. If you do it because I or anybody else tells you, you should, you are a no good dirty rat, because it's too big to pawn off on someone else, but if you do it, if you turn them in because you honestly are trying to help your brother, then and only then are  you your brother's keeper, and a man of true character. And that's hard man, that's so very hard. Since yourself and the pair of eyes looking back into your soul from the mirror are the only ones who know the truth about which you are, you may lose friends over it, you may alienate the person you are trying to help, you may get your friend kicked out of school, you may have to deal with ridicule like you've never experienced, but you may just help your brother in a way no one else could because you cared enough to go through all of that for them. And expulsion is not the end of the world, rather often a beginning, but in many cases the punishment is immediate and the help takes longer to surface, and it may never. So the question truly is: Do you care? When it's all over that is what really matters. Do you care about your brother? This school says you should, and that it's a matter of character, and character matters, mostly because it's not easy. If it were easy it wouldn't be special, it wouldn't be important, it wouldn't be character, and it wouldn't be real. It would just become another, one more example of hypocrisy in a world full of it. . . literally full of it.
It's not easy, nor is character determined by one action, but rather is learned and grown throughout ones entire life, and so grace is important within the system, grace forgives, but doesn't lower the standards, nor make it easy. Many people may seek to make it easy for you, cheapening character to the small, and the easily measurable. Be wary of that. I remember another time, when I was serving on the Discipline Committee, a student was before us, and he was in trouble for using dip, repeatedly. He kept saying that he wasn't the only one, and that the dip wasn't his, trying to make it seem like his involvement wasn't as bad. I said cool, whose is  it? He said, "I can't say." I said, "So it's yours." He said no, it wasn't, I said ok then whose is it? "I can't say?" So it's yours. We went on and around this for at least another 10 minutes. Finally he said, "It was mine." I said, "Ok" and was proud of him, not because he lied to me, not because he didn't tell me, but because he didn't try to save himself. I didn't make it easy for him, I think I even told him it would be good for him if he would tell us, but he didn't sell out his brother to save himself. He took his medicine the harder way, and to tell you the truth we already knew anyway whose it was. We often do.
I spoke last year about how character is who you are in the pit, when everything goes wrong, and many times it is taking the harder road. I challenge you to take that harder road, and to really care. Not because we require it, like we require you to go to a play or to a football game because it is important that you should, but because character, caring, being your brother's keeper is important enough that we don't require it. We can require you to act, we can structure you into functionality, but we cannot require you to care. It's something that must come from you and you only. We can only instill, and inspire, and instruct, and exemplify, and above all hope. . . its among the only hope we really have. Amen.


[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Ge 4:8-10). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Well Intentioned Arrogance

Well Intentioned Arrogance
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
October 27, 2013
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Luke 18: 9-14

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.

9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” [1]

I think this is my all time favorite gospel passage. It's so biting. How many times do we think like this Pharisee?  I think if we admit it, it happens so often, the best of us, and especially on our best day, we just seem to scream out, Man I am glad that I'm not like that guy. I may be this, but at least I don't do that. And that's on our best day, the day when we are supposed to have it all figured out. And this is where the pharisee is you can imagine, he's a good person, worked really hard to be, a pillar and example in the community, he deserves his status. And here he is being criticized. . . in Sunday School we were talking the other week about how hard Luke is, and how disjointed it seems to be, but then we found the consistent thread, that Jesus isn't often talking about what people are doing, but why, which is the hardest part. But we live in a world where morals matter and behavior is judged, where we compete with each other in every way, where from a young age we begin the comparisons, where we are driven to success, where we believe that merit matters, and should be rewarded, all of this going on, and Jesus reminds us here to be humble. Oh how hard humility can be, especially when from our perspective we have overcome so much to be the good people we are, well not perfect people for sure, but at least better than. . . there we go again. The old Mac Davis song was, Oh It's hard to be humble, when you're perfect in every way, that may be true, I wouldn't know, but I think it misses the mark, it should be, Oh it's hard to be humble when you're just a little bit better than someone else, anyone else, just one is enough, oh it's hard to be humble when you're human and alive. . . Ok Ok, it's just hard to be humble. Medieval Monks knew this, so many monasteries would put humility last, the highest rung on the ladder of ascension, the step by step process of purity that they would put themselves through, it wouldn't matter how high they rose, self importance and self righteousness would always ring its ugly head and knock them all the way down, so they put it all the way at the top as the last great barrier to moral perfection. There is nothing like a reminder to be humble, a requirement to be humble, to bring you back down and humble you.
I see it all week at school, both in class and on the football field. My favorite example from school has got to be from a bunch of years back, when I had a student, who wasn't the best student, he was ok, but he wasn't amazing, but he usually did his homework, and he would be so proud of doing it, that with a big smile on his face he'd say, "I've got my homework, Mr. Atkinson," which was only half the statement, the other half went unsaid, but would mean, with his eyes, that someone else didn't. I look good, got it done, but you know someone else didn't, boy am I glad I'm not that guy. He'd feel better about himself, simply because he could, from his perspective, put himself above. I see it on the football team often. There is a definite hierarchy of talent and leadership, and it flows from the top to the bottom pretty steadily. It's always amazing to me how some of the players in the middle will assert themselves over those at the bottom, talent and experience wise. I may not be a star, but at least I'm not that guy. And they feel good about themselves, and they feel better when they let those people, who are below them know it, We call it bullying. They are simple examples, and I wish I could say that it all stops when we get out of school and become adults, but you know it just doesn't. There is still that hierarchy, and there is always someone below who we can feel good about being "better than" at least about something.
So why does it matter? You know other than Jesus reminding us in this parable that being humble is important, and other than the fact that Jesus, himself, the son of God, coequal, coeternal with God, humbled himself to become human like us, to die on the cross, and on his way not saying, man I'm glad I'm not like these criminals who are hanging on these crosses next to me, or man I'm glad I'm not like these people who are sending me to my cross, but instead, father forgive them, they know not what they do." Other than all that, why does it matter? 
It all stems from what the I'm glad I'm not like them mentality does to us. It gives us a pass for all that we do that isn't so great. At least in our minds, it allows us to rationalize our own issues and excuse them, giving us a pass for our own bad behavior. It blinds us to our imperfections, or it allows us to rationalize them away as being not as bad as the other guy, but they are bad, they are real, and they do add up. Despite the best of intentions our little more innocent than the other guy peccadilloes often result in really bad things, and what's worse we don't even recognize how we are implicated in the problem. We look at the world and see it spiraling out of control, but we do not see our role in it.
I know I have a habit of being influenced by the other things that I'm reading during the week, especially also what I am teaching. This week we've been looking at the ancient work, Oedipus Rex, yeah the famous king, who by ugly twist of fate, despite or maybe because of his trying to avoid it, kills his father and marries his mother. This king has become famous for the psychoanalytic term Oedipus Complex, dealing with certain subconscious desires we won't dwell on, but the real Oedipus Complex is this well intentioned arrogance. Oedipus is blind to his issues, mostly because he is a king in the middle of a crisis, who needs to save his people. He promises to save them, he believes he is the only one who can save them, and he loses total track of who he is, where his power comes from, where his abilities come from, what his role really is, and how he oversteps those bounds at his own and his peoples' peril. If you look at the prayer of preparation for today I took a quote from Oedipus, this the chorus, reminding the audience exactly what a king should be, above all things pious, knowing his role, but he doesn't. He thinks that he is the only one who can save the city, not God, completely blind to the fact that the scourge he is trying to eliminate is actually himself. Anyone who suggests that possibility is immediately against him. He bases his ability to save the city on the fact that he did it before, he saved the city from the sphinx, so he is sure he can save it from this plague, his success makes him arrogant, and his arrogance makes him blind, and his blindness to his guilt legitimizes in his mind everything that he does, including calling for the death of his best friend and brother in law/uncle, I'm the savior of this city, the people need me, I'm glad I'm not like you unfeeling, uncaring people, who are trying to stop me, at one point, that unfortunate brother in law says, but Oedipus, what if you are wrong, he responds, still I must rule, at another point, what if you bring upon yourself destruction, and he responds, but if it saves the city. Then you are acting like a fool a tyrant, would you have me not save myself? The city and himself become so entwined that he cannot differentiate, himself as savior, in importance, and the object of what he is saving, it becomes about him. Though his intentions are good, meaningful, selfless even, his arrogance makes him a selfish tyrant, yes selfless to selfish, so quickly. . . well intentioned arrogance.
Now you may be asking yourself, what does a fictional ancient king have to do with me? We do the same things all the time. So much of American culture is based on the idea of being "good people." Giving back, paying forward, , saving something or someone, be it the planet, the poor, the children, the victims, wearing pink all month to make people aware of breast cancer, yeah it's about making people aware, but not of breast cancer instead, of how much we care about other people. We often look at performing community service as status symbols, we look at political action movements as having monopolies on compassion. All with the best of intentions surely, I mean we are helping people, more than that we are saving people, right, that makes us good people, but then what do we do afterwards? What do we do with our good person status that we have bought with our compassionate hearts? Whatever the heck we want, right? We're free, and we're good people, so why shouldn't I have the finer things in life, why shouldn't I buy this extra expensive designer handbag, why shouldn't I put in a pool, why shouldn't I take the week off and go lay on the beach for awhile. I give lots of money to charity, why shouldn't I cheat on my taxes? Why shouldn't I cut a few corners? Why shouldn't I take this insider information I know and make a little money? Sure it's illegal, but it's not like I'm really stealing, I'm not like those other guys who rob at gun point, I'm just cutting a few corners. Imagine you are someone who donates all their time, running a non profit organization that is working to save poor people in Africa who are afflicted with AIDS. No one else is helping those poor people, I'm the only one, I'm the only one who cares, I'm glad I'm not like those uncompassionate people who care nothing about people who are suffering, so why shouldn't I live in a bigger house, buy a pool, drive a nice car, I deserve it, I care. I'm entitled to it, I'm compassionate and you are just heartless, so yeah I'm glad I'm not you. Aaron Hernandez, NFL Star, is in the news lately accused of murder, I'm sure last October he was feeling pretty good, dressed in his pink socks, showing how much he cared about women with breast cancer, why not commit murder? Well at least he isn't involved in dog fighting? What about you, have you ever said, well, thank God I'm not as bad a person as Michael Vick?
We're keeping this nation safe, why not use the NSA to spy on our people. We're trying to give people health care, why not use tricky politics to get it passed, or we're trying to save people from a bad health care policy, why not shut down the government to get it done. Our politics are full of it because we are full of it. . . Literally. We say, well I'm glad I'm not a Republican, or I'm glad I'm not a Democrat, or lately, I'm just glad I'm not a politician.. I mean, even collectively it gets us, as a nation, we give aid to countries all around the world, we are the good light of democracy and freedom, the exceptional a city on a hill, why not send drone strikes, at least we're not like Russia, or Iran, or are we? It's arrogance, well intentioned I think, but arrogance, and its individual and collective, micro and macro, so it's not just about following Jesus example or listening to his parable, when he talks about humility, it's not just empty advice because there are real world consequences for well intentioned arrogance and it's been wise to take a look at them.
Looking down there is always examples of people doing things, and being people, who can make you feel pretty good about yourself, pretty solid in your status and self satisfaction, but as Christians we are called to look up, and Christ's example smacks our arrogance in the face again and again. Oh yeah you put on pink socks, I wore a crown of thorns, oh yeah you spent a little money, I paid the ultimate price, you saved someone, I saved the entire world, but Jesus never would point those things out, he just wouldn't because on top of all that he was also humble, giving up his crown to become human, humble beginnings, and therefore was exalted. He didn't take a day off, he was always Christ, always good and always humble. And that's the thing about the Kingdom of God, it isn't a part time kind of place. It's full time. It's all the time. It's not fragmented, its whole, its holy. It isn't the kind of deal where you are a good person to earn your get out of jail free card. It's a place of love, and love just doesn't have a day off. At least not the true love, that is patient and kind, slow to anger, and of the steadfast nature that God abounds in, so loving the world that he sent his only begotten son, not to condemn the world, but to save it, to save the humble, to exalt the humble, allowing the meek to inherit the Earth, full time, now and forever, and if it wasn't so we'd be in serious trouble, which leave us no excuse not to find in our hearts a little bit of humility and a whole lot of love. Amen.


[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Lk 18:9-14). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Unremittingly Repeated

Unremittingly Repeated
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
October 20, 2013
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Luke 18: 1-8
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.

18 Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. 2 He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3 In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ 4 For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’ ” 6 And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8 I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” [1]  

I'll tell you it really helps when the gospel writer tells you what the parable is about beforehand. It puts it all out there and makes sure that the point is not missed. Look at verse 1 here in chapter 18, "then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not lose heart." Great, we're done. That is all we need do this week. We need to pray and keep on praying, repeating our prayer. The squeaky wheel is the one that gets the grease, as the famous proverb goes. This parable echoes other parts of the Gospels, that depict Jesus saying the same thing. There is the famous, Ask and it shall be given unto you, seek and ye shall find. There you have a perfect tense verb, which suggests that it isn't just an ask once deal, or a seek once deal, but an ask and keep on asking, and a seek and keep on seeking. It all seems simple enough doesn't it. Just keep praying, pray and pray and pray, and to quote Jesus here, "will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?"  And then the second part of it all is that not only are we to pray and pray and pray, we also are not to lose heart. Aye there's the rub, and just as if Jesus knows our issue, knows what continually causes us to lose heart, he casts in his parable an unjust judge.
This is where the parable becomes interesting and takes shape around more than just prayer, but also about human relations and the continual cause of our grief--politics--again and again. I looked up the word politics in the dictionary, and this is what I found: "the complex or aggregate of relationships of people in society, especially those relationships involving authority or power." It's derived from the Greek word, polis that means city, and is found in this text, saying "in a certain city" there it is polis. So politics is all the working out of human relationships where differing power and authority comes into play, not just what we are bombarded with on TV, and on the Radio, in Newspapers, and on the internet, it's everywhere, but also that it's political in our work places, when the boss plays favorites, and makes decisions that may upset us, it's political in families, when holidays happen and there is a battle over who stays where, and what meal is served, or at a wedding when two different families come together and decisions need to be made about all kinds of festivities, its political when figuring estates, its political on my football team when we are trying to figure out who plays, and where. And of course it's political here in church, it has to be by definition. In all these scenarios tons of factors come into play and decisions are and have to be made, and often some people are happy about the decisions and others are not. Again that's politics. I remember trying to explain when I was in high school to someone why I was cut from the JV baseball team my sophomore year, and my answer was always, well it's political, the new coach wanted guys he knew and though I played last year, I just didn't make it this year. Was I better than the other guy though, who knows, but the "it's political" line was a convenient excuse. People always knew what I was talking about because they had experienced it, the same thing,  at some point in their lives, too. It's all around us. Politics. Complex aggregate of societal relationships.
So in this parable, we have a poor widow, and she has been hurt in some way I guess, it doesn't really say. It just says she comes to the judge for justice against her "opponent," the word in Greek is antidikos, adversary, or opponent as in a trial, Literally it is "against word." The one who speaks against. Now we get no information about the woman, other than she is a widow, we don't hear what her suit is, we don't know how she is injured, we don't know what justice would look like were she to get it, we just feel sympathy for her, maybe because she is a widow, we feel she is a victim of politics, and we are strengthened in our preconceived notions of this because of how the judge is described. The judge does not fear God and had no respect for people. It repeats this pattern of description twice, no fear of God and no respect for anyone. Great combination of traits for a judge, right. It sounds familiar to us. You may be asking  yourself how a person like that could become a judge in the first place, and there is only one answer that can suffice, yup, you guessed it, it was political. But even he, will give her justice if she bugs him enough. The Greek again is so much more vivid than our english translation. The word for bothering, is a word that describes someone coming at another person in a fight, or to slap someone in the face, and then "the wear me out" line, reflects the same image, someone who has been beaten repeatedly, as in by a fist, in a fight. It's certainly an interesting image, especially if you picture the widow to be a sweet older lady. She just keeps coming at him and won't give up. Again we are called to be like a widow, in the face of injustice, much like the widow who gives her offering out of her poverty, this woman will not give up, she is fighting against the unjust judge, and because of her persistence, she wins.
How easy it is to lose heart, though. How often do we become the ones worn out? How often does it seem like it's the world that is slapping us in the face, and wearing us out, leaving us broken and beaten, defeated and cynical, so sure that none of it matters, that none of it will ever change anyway if it did matter, and there just is no hope. We feel that way because the other message is repeated to. The idea of injustice in the world also slaps us in the face again and again. It seems to work both ways here. It may be true that constant prayer will result in justice, but there are constant in our face repeated phrases and examples of injustice unremittingly repeated in our ears, again and again. The political forces know that repetition works to get points across. We live in a  world of soundbytes and talking points, where image is everything. Sure it happens in Washington, that's on the news all the time, but it also happens in all of the other levels of politics, defined again as the aggregate of our societal relationships, sure at work, family, school, church. All of them are fraught with this, image first mentality.  It seems to not matter what truth is, it just matters how you can spin an event, and if you repeat your spin enough, you can get people to believe it. There is a deep chasm in this country between people who do not seem to be able to talk to each other, not because they don't want to come together, but because they are not speaking the same language, they are not dealing with the same reality, they are not dealing with facts anymore, but on spin and talking points, there is no critical thinking, just unremitting repetition, a bombardment of repeated lines, slapping us in the face again and again, and you can either buy into it or become completely cynical, sure that nothing can ever be changed. It's just the way it is. That is losing heart isn't it. Now I've used that title unremittingly repeated a few times, and it is the title of this sermon. It is not my own phrase, but one that comes from Adolf Hitler: he wrote in his diabolical work Mein Kampf, "By means of shrewd lies, unremittingly repeated, it is possible to make people believe that heaven is hell -- and hell heaven. The greater the lie, the more readily it will be believed." Do you hear that? Talk about an unjust judge, perhaps the worst in history, at least the most recent and infamous, talk about politics run amok, talk about talking points and spin rather than reality. . . how can it be reversed? How do you combat shrewd lies, unremittingly repeated? Truth Unremittingly repeated, and I don't mean necessarily in the arena of idea, screaming louder and more often, joining the fight, using the world's tactics to further the Kingdom of God, but rather something more personal, Jesus' world is like ours, and he says to pray and not lose heart, connecting the two.
Prayer is talking with God, going to God, hearing from God. Talking to God will remind us of reality. Talking to God will connect us again to the truth. Talking to God will remind us that this world is made good by Him, in his control, under his care, and that justice will rule, no matter how loud the injustice is, no matter how many times it's repeated, no matter how far apart the voices are, God is truly the one in control. And so we need to pray and pray and pray, to be constantly reminded of that, so that we can hold fast, have faith, and not lose heart. Though the creeks will rise, though the rains will fall, though it seems like we are spiraling out of control, though the chasm between the voices grows wider, though it seems like it's time to give up, like there just is no hope, day and night without ceasing we need to pray and be reminded. It is an act of faith, and it is such like we said a couple of weeks ago, when the disciples asked for their faith to be increased, and Jesus reminded them that faith is of the kingdom, it's that mustard seed, and a mustard seed, overgrows the weeds, firm, fast, and complete. Instead of shrewd lies repeated, let us pray, and get connected to the truth, not to be convinced that heaven is hell, but to have faith that the kingdom of God is truly a reality, and will come, as God's perfect will is done, creating true, justice.  It is this scenario I believe Jesus has in mind when he says, "and yet when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on Earth?" I watched Hoosiers the other night, the great old movie about the Indiana small town basketball team who wins the state title, Gene Hackman, the coach is asked by the press at a state tournament interview, whether he will return to coach at Hickory next season, he evades the answer, but then Barbara Hershey, the school's principal, and his sort of love interest grabs the cheerleading megaphone, and says, "It's a good question!" And they laugh and blush, and he walks off. . . That's how I respond to Jesus's question, "When the Son of man comes, will he find faith on Earth?" It's a good question. . . Amen.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Lk 18:1-8). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Grateful Samaritan

The Grateful Samaritan
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
October 13, 2013
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Luke 17: 11-19

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.

11 On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, 13 they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” 14 When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. 15 Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16 He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17 Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18 Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19 Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” [1]  

So often we talk about the parable of the Good Samaritan. The church I grew up in, in Waldorf Maryland was named after that famous character, who decided to care more about the man lying beaten and robbed in a ditch, after two others, two priests had passed right by on the other side of the road, but in this text, we see another Samaritan, whom I have decided to call the Grateful Samaritan. There are many similarities between these two Samaritans, and I would say that all the well known ideas about Samaritans apply to this guy too. He is a part of a hated race, a people seen as unfaithful traitors, lower than low, to be looked down upon. Just like the Good Samaritan he is here compared with others who act very differently from him, setting him up as the example of positive behavior. Here we have a story about 10 lepers. They come up to Jesus and ask for to be cured. Jesus sends them to find priests. On the way they are healed. Nine of the ten are not heard from again, but the one, this grateful Samaritan, returns to Jesus, simply to praise God, thank Jesus, and to proclaim his gratitude for Jesus for everyone to hear. It says he came back, offered thanks, in a loud voice, and then prostrated himself at the foot of Jesus. Jesus is like, weren't there nine of you? Is the only one to come back and praise God this foreigner? Again a Samaritan, just like his good counterpart, this grateful one, does what nine others don't do, he simply returns to say thanks!
Now this isn't the first leprosy healing that takes place in the region of Samaria. In the Old Testament reading that Paula read for us this morning, we see another one. In this one the commander of the Aramean army, a man named Naaman is healed of his leprosy by the prophet Elisha, which results in Naaman giving glory to God, though like this Samaritan, Naaman was also considered a "Foreigner." There are some other parallels between the two stories. The biggest one is the fact that there really isn't a whole lot to the healing. Basically in the New Testament one, Jesus just says, hey guys, go find a priest, and the next thing you know these guys are healed. In the Naaman one from 2 Kings, Naaman is just told to go wash himself in the river and he will be cleaned. In both you get the idea that the people are skeptical of the process. Naaman is like, really, is this all I have to do. I've been swimming in rivers before and it hasn't helped, and wouldn't one of these other, bigger, cleaner rivers be better? Why this one? He almost doesn't go through with it, but then he does and his life is changed forever. Why is it that we want our healings to be elaborate? Why do we want our life changing moments to be extra momentous? We seem to want to mark the occasion with a struggle, we want our medicine to taste bad. . . Is it because we think that where there is no pain, there is no gain, where there is no struggle there is no reward. If you feel it you know it's working. . . like that Selson Blue dandruff shampoo commercial, it's the tingle that shows it's working, but in that case. . . the shampoo, the stuff that makes it tingle has nothing to do with the dandruff medicine. It's not the medicine it's the menthol. . . Why does that marketing work? Is there something in human beings that makes us want to feel that something is working? Is it because we have a need to earn the healing? That we need to feel we have something to do with it for it to count? Does this have something to do with why we have trouble showing gratitude? Is it at all connected? If we help ourselves, then it is expected that we get the rest of the help on the way. But with Jesus it isn't always like that, and Grace like we'll sing in a minute, is of course amazing, but also free, easy, without struggle, at least for us, the price was substantial, but it has already been paid. Like Jesus says, it's the faith that heals him, not the action. The action comes afterwards, in that prostrate moment of gratitude.
That leads me to my next question: "What happens to the other guys?" We read that they got healed too, but reading it the second time, and pairing it with the Old Testament reading, I started to wonder if it stuck, if they really are healed. I have to admit, that I prefer to think that all 10 are healed, but nine of them seem to show no gratitude, no thanks. Much like needing to feel a healing, gratitude is something that human beings struggle with, especially when it is gratitude directed towards God. The Bible is full of human beings straying from God, though God again and again saves us, heals us, provides for us, sets us free, and so much more, afterwards, we forget, we move on. We pray and pray for God to come, step in, intervene, do something, and then he does, and the problem goes away, and we forget. The biggest example is probably the Israelites being freed from their bondage in Egypt. For hundreds of years they pray for a deliverer, and finally get one in the person of Moses, but they are barely out of Egypt and the ungrateful grumbling occurs, they even go so far as to ask to go back to their chains.  In my own life I can think of times lying in bed worrying about something, praying about it, begging for things to work out, and then it does, and the next night I go right to sleep. I have no trouble falling to sleep after its over. Worry keeps us up at night, but when it comes reprieve and release we fall right to sleep. It happens in my life again and again, so I completely understand the issue and own that it is a part of me, I often forget gratitude, in the wake of everything turning out right.
Now I put myself in the place of these 9 lepers. They have been suffering for years, they have been hurting for some time, shunned by everyone, a major source of fear, denied any physical contact with other humans. And then they are healed. Could you imagine the feeling? Once dead, to be brought completely and instantly back to life. It would be easy to get caught up in the moment, having been given a new chance at life, you can see how people would get caught up in living. And that is what it's all about isn't. You've got a chance at life, you realize how precious it is, and now you get to live. Do you remember why?
It is interesting to me that this passage follows directly last week's in the Gospel of Luke because last week's scripture lesson also included important words about gratitude. Do you remember it: verses 7-10

7 “Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? 8 Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? 9 Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? 10 So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’ ” [2]  

Do you thank a slave for doing what was commanded, for doing what is expected? Why does this directly precede this story about the grateful Samaritan? Is there something about this idea of it being expected? Do we expect our blessings from God? Do we feel that we have earned them? Are we good enough people? Have we grown so accustomed to living a charmed life that we simply expect for things to go well, expect God to step in and bless us, to set us free, so that when He does, we don't feel grateful. Do you expect the next breath to come? Sure, I think we all do, so we rarely are grateful when they do. We expect the sun to rise each day, so we are rarely grateful when it does. We expect to be healthy, so we are rarely grateful when we feel good. What are the things in life that you just expect as given? Are you grateful for them, maybe? 1 in ten. Do you go out of your way to thank God for them, proclaim in a loud voice to the world that God is great, that God is Lord, that God is good and loves? Or no. . .
Maybe the Samaritan is grateful because he doesn't feel he is chosen. . . he doesn't feel like God cares for him, and then he learns otherwise. I think we are all here because we in some way have felt that God loves us, that God cares for us, that God is a major presence in our lives. Since we see that as an expected part of our lives, many of us church goers since birth, have we lost simply being grateful? Every week we go through the Prayer of Confession and the Assurance of Pardon, is forgiveness for our sins so expected that we just take it all in stride? We say our prayer, we have our moment of silence, we are forgiven, we sing Gloria Patri and we go about the rest of the service. Do we let ourselves lie prostrate at the foot of Jesus, thanking him for being set free? I have to wonder why not. . . what do you think?  Let's take a minute to stop then right now, what we are doing, look at what he has given, and be grateful, truly grateful. There is so much that we can be grateful for. Take a minute to yourself, and then I'll conclude aloud.


[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Lk 17:11-19). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[2]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Lk 17:7-10). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Increase Our Faith!

Increase Our Faith!
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
October 6, 2013
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Luke 17: 5-10
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.

5 The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” 6 The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.
7 “Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? 8 Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? 9 Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? 10 So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’ ”[1]

I used to think that the Gospel of Luke was the sweet gospel, the nice gospel, the gospel of angels and shepherds, nice stories about Zaccheus and uplifting parables like the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son, but the parables of the last couple months have been hard. One after another has been challenging. If you think about where we've been the last couple months, in September alone, we've been asked to humble ourselves, inviting the cripple and the lame into our intimate places, giving up our perceived places of status for them, and that there is no way to follow Christ without taking up our own cross, the amazing sacrifice of our entire self that the cross requires, our notions of who's in and who's out have been challenged by Jesus' insistence on the importance of the one, each one, even those we would consider lost, we've been challenged to look at how we use people as tools for our own manipulations, we've been told that we don't listen, and won't listen, that our perspective is backwards, and eternity hangs in the balance of our lessons, we've been challenged to look at and actually see the people around us that we may otherwise ignore, forced to look beyond our own perceived need, in contrast to others and their real needs. The disciples have been on this ride, too, so you can see why at the beginning of today's lesson, they scream out, with a rare  New Testament exclamation point, "Increase our faith!" Jesus you've been challenging us, you're putting us way out there, you are throwing us way beyond our comfort zone. In the moment, we are afraid, and don't even want to imagine the future, the past is even unthinkable, especially now, knowing what we know, having seen what we have seen. Jesus give us more faith, we need it, we need it now! If I'm going to do what you ask, if I'm going to be what you are saying I am, I need to believe, I need to know, I need to be sure. Give me more faith!
In today's politically correct world of person first language, Christians and other religious people are commonly referred to as people of faith, but is there any person alive who doesn't have faith in something? Is that a distinction that really sets us apart? Isn't faith itself something that is one of the essential qualities of being human? If  you've driven a car on a two lane road, at upwards of 55 plus miles per hour, you have faith. You have faith that a little double yellow line painted on the asphalt is going to keep you from a head on collision with another person of faith barreling down the road in the opposite direction, equally as fast, mere inches apart. It's then not necessarily a matter of faith, but a matter of what we have faith in that seems to divide us. But we all have faith. . . we all have a little faith. . . we all have faith dare I say, at least the size of a mustard seed, or a least the size of a little yellow line. . .little yellow, different, isn't that just an old nuprin commercial?. . . yes a mustard seed, which as we have heard so many times, Jesus chooses not because he liked the plant or the condiment, but because of the small seed to large plant ratio. A mustard plant, though the seeds are incredibly tiny, grows to over 9 feet tall, according to some of the research I did.
But what are the things we believe in? And why above all does Jesus want to move that mulberry bush into the sea? Where does that come from? I thought the mulberry bush was a thing to go around, not a thing to uproot and plant into the sea, but with this mustard sized faith that we could have we could do such things, or move a mountain as Matthew's gospel suggests. But what good is either? Who would want to do such things? Instead, Jesus we want faith enough to carry our cross, love our enemies, welcome in those poor souls who hang out at the gates of our existence, to risk, our lives, our status, our stuff, knowing that God is real and that the world He created is truly good, when to our eyes it doesn't seem that way. We'd like to believe that the mulberry bush and the mountains are where they are supposed to be because God put them there. . . Jesus that is the kind of faith we want to increase. Keep the mountains and the bushes where they are and let us know instead that you are there. That's what we need, that is the faith we want increased because our world, the world we live in does not appear to us to be in sync with your promises.
I want to point out now that there may be more to the mustard seed analogy here than just smallness. Faith isn't the only thing in the gospels that is compared with this tiny little mustard seed. All three synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, also include a parable about a mustard seed being compared to the kingdom of God. In all three there is a tiny little two verse parable that says, well I'll give the Luke one, since we've been studying Luke, much earlier way back in Luke 13 verses 18-19:

“What is the kingdom of God like? And to what should I compare it? 19 It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.” [2]  

Is Jesus then saying that faith and the mustard seed, moving mountains and uprooting innocent mulberry bushes,  is connected to the mustard seed and the kingdom of God, and therefore very much the same thing. Is the kingdom of God simply a kingdom of faith, where people believe, and believe in God and God's kingdom, does the kingdom of God begin with faith in the kingdom of God? That is profound.
Jesus says that the mustard seed, in the kingdom of God simile, was planted in a garden, even though evidence shows that Jews did not plant the seeds in gardens, rather they grew wild. The biggest reason is that it grows fast like weeds and would completely take over any garden it was planted in. Pliny the Elder wrote in the year 78, that "mustard… is extremely beneficial for the health. It grows entirely wild, though it is improved by being transplanted: but on the other hand when it has once been sown it is scarcely possible to get the place free of it, as the seed when it falls germinates at once." It is quite an image isn't. As if the smallest amount of faith rightly directed would not be suppressible. It would just grow and grow and grow. In this light the second part of the text makes more sense.
When I first read it I wondered why Jesus would go from the disciples asking about faith to the bit about not deserving credit for what  is expected. Telling us that "we should think of ourselves as worthless slaves, having only done what we ought to have done!" Mulberry bushes, mustard seeds, and now this. . . What is Jesus getting at now? Think about it if faith is like a mustard seed, growing uncontrollable, it must not be that they have any faith in the kingdom of God, how can they increase what they don't have, they are slaves to their doubts. . . if they have even a little bit of faith, it would grow at leaps and bounds, unstoppable, like this grass stuff I have in the backyard, it grew everywhere. I started a garden for the first time this year, and planted some vegetables which the voles ate all up, and then some wildflowers, but I couldn't tell the weed germination from the flowers, and before I knew it this grass stuff had completely overrun everything. Is that what the mustard faith is supposed to be like? In this sense it is not something that needs to be increased, but would grow completely out of control if it were planted, or if the seed just came into the smallest contact with the soil. If the seed of faith were planted, it would be expected to grow. . .not something to brag about or get credit for, surely not?
But why doesn't it grow then? Why does Jesus keep saying to disciples ye of little faith? Why do we not believe? Why is our world more and more cynical, when even the smallest seed would overrun the gardens we've made for ourselves? Jesus says that the kingdom of God is a mustard seed planted in a garden, but no one would plant it in a garden because it would overrun the order.  It would make it a mess. It would change the nature of the garden completely. Just one little seed. No we can't. Let's get in the way instead. It's too dangerous. It's not the right time. It's too risky. Just a little faith. . .no not right now.
I wrote this poem a couple of years ago. I shared it with the Sunday School Class before. It's about a time in First Presbyterian in Hampton, where we participated in a program called "A Night's Welcome." Hampton is a downtown city church, and with other churches in the area, in the winter each church would host a week for the homeless to have a place to stay, right there in the church. It was cool, but certain things about it were hard. Like where to draw lines. This poem came out of that, and me thinking about Robert Frost's poem, "Mending Wall" It's called, "Doors, Fences, Locks, and a Bridge."
Good fences make good neighbors
And locked doors make them great
But on the inside what does that make?
Safe inside away from the world
We protect our things from them
What do we have that they should take?
Who is my neighbor I must ask?
What is my charge to them, my task?
Who am I to love? Who is us? Who is them?
The walls I build do good neighbors build
Is that enough love from me, bettering them?
I protect them from stealing from me
Did I not save them from their sin?
Of course I did but that is not love
For I never knew the face of them I saved.
I never once cared for the needs of them
Only saved them in my way not theirs.
What is their way? What is their need?
It is surely captivated by sin and greed
If they were us, they’d be saved like us
Christ at work within their lives instead
Of wallowing through life half dead
Stealing from me who tried to help
Those two weeks we served doors unlocked.
We graciously open our doors to them
Is that the thanks we get for our act?
What is the problem? How is it made right?
Where do I look for Your answers my God?
The book of your Word the Words of Your Son
Love Your neighbor as yourself, can it be?
But my neighbor is none like myself at all.
My neighbor steals, my neighbor lies
My neighbor must be locked outside.
How can I love my neighbor like I do me?
“I did”, it said in so simple words through deeds.
“I did” though my world was heaven
“I did” though Your world was not
Open to what my actions say and do
That there is no You or I, no us and them
I the bridge where a fence once stood
Unlocked the doors to you and them.
Us is all that is left when fences come down.

Is the kingdom of God a place of fences? locked doors? or bridges? Is it possible that believing that is the beginning of the kingdom of God. "Young Goodman Brown" is one of my favorite stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne, in it the devil a character, says, that "Depending upon one another's hearts, ye had still hoped that virtue were not all a dream. Now are ye undeceived. Evil is the nature of mankind. Evil must be your only happiness. Welcome again, my children, to the communion of your race." Which do we believe? Do we believe that our neighbors are untrustworthy and horrible. . . or potential brothers and sisters to love, who like us are made good in the image of God.
Now I know that poem screams to be crazy and unlock the doors of the church, to put fear aside and risk all, and I don't think we are ready to do that. Actually I know that we are not ready to do that. I'm not ready to do that either.  I'm not saying we should do that, but I am saying we need to figure out what we can believe in, what small mustard seed risk we can take, something that we place entirely in the hands of God, believing that faith is tied to the kingdom of God, which Jesus is screaming here, rather than "God helps those who help themselves, which is not found anywhere in scripture," that this one complete seed of faith, resting entirely in the hands of God will grow uncontrollably into the fullness of the kingdom of God. Jesus is exclaiming that it need not be big to grow, but it seems that it must be planted, or at least directly touch the soil, not at all held back, but not the big entire plant at once, just the seed, but with each faith, honest faith, real faith the kingdom of God takes root and grows like wild fire. We ask ourselves, "What do we believe?" We say to Jesus, increase our faith!
In the garden of Eden the serpent said to Eve, did God tell you that  you could eat of any fruit of the garden? And Eve responded, "We can eat of any fruit, except the tree in the center, the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil, God said shall we eat it, we shall surely die." The serpent says, "Ye shall not surely die."  The seed of doubt was planted. . . is God a liar? What would that mean for a world that God spoke into existence? Let there be light, and it was, and he said that it was Good. Has the knowledge we have gained, blinded us to the truth? With that question pounding our brain, ripping our hearts, we ask for Jesus to increase our faith. He says, one little mustard seed will answer that question. . . do we dare risk it touching soil?

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Lk 17:5-10). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[2]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Lk 13:18-19). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.